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Edmund Fitzgerald

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald in the St. Mary’s River in May, 1975. Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by Bob Campbell, Grand Ledge, Michigan.

Forty years ago the Edmund Fitzgerald foundered on Lake Superior, about 17 miles from the entrance of Whitefish Bay.  All 29 crew members passed away.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was christened on June 8, 1958 where more than 15,000 people attended its launch.  The ship made regular routes between Duluth, Detroit, Toledo and other ports carrying up to 24,000 tons of taconite.

On Sunday, November 9, 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald left from Superior, Wisconsin heading for Zug Island, near Detroit.  The following day across Lake Superior there were reported winds of 60mph and waves of 35 feet.  The Soo Locks had already closed.  The Arthur M. Anderson had been trailing the Fitzgerald across Lake Superior and would eventually lose radio contact with the Fitzgerald.

Though my parents can recall the day the Fitzgerald sank, it was long before my life had begun.  It became Godon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” that would leave a memory in my mind.  The song was released in August 1976, not yet a year since the Edmund Fitzgerald sank.  The song was supposedly influenced by a Newsweek article titled “The Cruelest Month”,  which reported on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

by Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore – 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconson
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and the Captain well seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
Could it be the North Wind they’d been feeling.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T’was the witch of November come stealing.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane West Wind

When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it’s too rough to feed ya
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it’s been good to know ya.

The Captain wired in he had water coming in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the words turn the minutes to hours
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d fifteen more miles behind her.

They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the ruins of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams,
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed, ’til it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.

Names of all 29 sailors on board

Name Age Occupation On Board Hometown
Michael E. Armagost 37 Third Mate Iron River, Wisconsin
Frederick J. Beetcher 56 Porter Superior, Wisconsin
Thomas D. Bentsen 23 Oiler St. Joseph, Michigan
Edward F. Bindon 47 First Assistant Engineer Fairport Harbor, Ohio
Thomas D. Borgeson 41 Maintenance Man Duluth, Minnesota
Oliver J. Champeau 41 Third Assistant Engineer Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Nolan S. Church 55 Porter Silver Bay, Minnesota
Ransom E. Cundy 53 Watchman Superior, Wisconsin
Thomas E. Edwards 50 Second Assistant Engineer Oregon, Ohio
Russell G. Haskell 40 Second Assistant Engineer Millbury, Ohio
George J. Holl 60 Chief Engineer Cabot, Pennsylvania
Bruce L. Hudson 22 Deck Hand North Olmsted Ohio
Allen G. Kalmon 43 Second Cook Washburn, Wisconsin
Gordon F. MacLellan 30 Wiper Clearwater, Florida
Joseph W. Mazes 59 Special Maintenance Man Ashland, Wisconsin
John H. McCarthy 62 First Mate Bay Village, Ohio
Ernest M. McSorley 63 Captain Toledo, Ohio
Eugene W. O’Brien 50 Wheelsman Toledo, Ohio
Karl A. Peckol 20 Watchman Ashtabula, Ohio
John J. Poviach 59 Wheelsman Bradenton, Florida
James A. Pratt 44 Second Mate Lakewood, Ohio
Robert C. Rafferty 62 Steward Toledo, Ohio
Paul M. Riippa 22 Deck Hand Ashtabula, Ohio
John D. Simmons 63 Wheelsman Ashland, Wisconsin
William J. Spengler 59 Watchman Toledo, Ohio
Mark A. Thomas 21 Deck Hand Richmond Heights, Ohio
Ralph G. Walton 58 Oiler Fremont, Ohio
David E. Weiss 22 Cadet Agoura, California
Blaine H. Wilhelm 52 Oiler Moquah, Wisconsin

13 Wonderful Comments

  1. I remember well that gloomy evening in November. I was then a student at LSSC now LSSU and a freind and I walked along Water St. in Sault Ste. Marie and water was actually sloshing over the it from Lake Superior. It was particularly eerie and I will always remember that night and the fate it held for those 29 men aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is well worth a trip to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. Especially poignant is the short documentary they show inside. Museum Ship Valley Camp in Sault Ste. Marie also displays a lifeboat from the “Fitz” and it becomes very clear how fierce Lake Superior can be.

  2. Linda Salo Benson
    Nov 10, 2013

    The song says it all and the bell tolls for all lost and their families. God Bless.

  3. I don’t remember being in any place in particular when this happened. But ever since I was a kid, having spent may days on stormy seas in the Great Lakes, this event has struck a chord in me. I have no relation to any of the 29 lives that were lost on that day, but my heart goes out to the lost, and to anyone with any relation to them. Long live the Fitz and the ships that follow her…

  4. Evan Brown
    Nov 10, 2013

    I remember the shipwreck well. I was in high school and it was a cold day in southwestern OH. I spent many summers on Lake Erie (called the “Angry Sea” by Native Americans) and I knew that storms on the lakes could get fierce.

    It was the summer of 1977 when I discovered the ship was christened the day I was born. Since then I have felt a special connection to the ship and her crew.

  5. Craig Ritsema
    Nov 11, 2013

    Before we go to bed tonight, a prayer for the families. To the families, God Bless you all so very very very much.

  6. Craig Ritsema
    Nov 11, 2013

    To Yooper-Steez, I have read a stack of books (at least 8 to 10) and various articles concerning the Edmund Fitzgerald and most observers feel winds were much higher and waves much higher than you have written, some have said that winds reached 100+ mph and that some swells were as high as close to 100 foot themselves. They say the swells that hit the E.F were what they call “sister swells” and there may have be 2 sets of them that hit the ship. I not try to say that your wrong, please don’t get me wrong, neither one of were there, in fact no one was there to tell us what really happen. So, so, so sad though, just rips your heart out, even after 38 years. My former brother-in-law lost a family member (I think his dad or step-dad) in a shipwreck in Lake Superior, and I believe there is a memorial with his name on it someplace up there, guess I better ask my ex where it is. His name was Lodenstein–better check with ex on that spelling.

  7. S. miller
    Nov 11, 2013

    Even today, sailors won’t whistle on the water of Lake Superior or sing this song ’till the boat hits the channel. So sorry for your loss. Best regards. S.m.

  8. al leonard
    Nov 12, 2013

    I was working as a 24 yr old mechanic at Soo Motors the day of the sinking..the day started out sunny but as the day wore on the noise from the International Bridge was errie and the winds were howling….after work the winds were so bad that I had to back my pickup and camper tight up against my garage on Riverside Drive for fear it may be blown over….water was sloshing out of the locks and Water street was flooded by the Ojibway hotel..that night was scary noisy with wind..it was amazing more damage wasen’t done than actually occured…as bad as it was on land I can’t imagine what is was like for those brave men that night…God rest their souls….

  9. Dan smith
    Nov 18, 2014

    Remember it well … In radio news at the time of the songs release, I interviewed a recently retired crew member from the Ftiz in Wisconsin. He said tearfully “all my old shipmates, they’re all gone …. God bless them all…”
    Couple of words in the lyrics (just FYI) are incorrect… That good ship and CREW…. When the WAVES turn the minutes…. In the ROOMS of her ice water mansion.
    All Lightfoot fans cherish this classic story of a lake tragedy, told in poignant fashion.

  10. Jim Rathbun
    Nov 10, 2015

    I was 15 yrs old when they built the Edmund Fitzgerald and 32yrs old when she sank in Lake Superior. I will never forget that day, its had to describe the emotional feelings! I think about the Edmund Fitzgerald often as I think of the Titanic sinking. I have had an interest In Great Ships since I was very young! I pray for the families.

  11. I was at that musty old hall, the Maritime Sailors Cathedral, for that service. I was on the
    Detroit Fire Dept. and they honored our fallen Fighters also. It was a very touching service,
    with the ringing of the bell.

  12. I re live this story all too well every memoral day and for weeks after

  13. Tim O'Brien
    Aug 8, 2017

    I still get chills when I hear this song! These men shall never be forgotten…R.I.P
    I did many of silly crazy stuff in my years of growing up and I always wanted to be on the ships working their ways….There was a wheelsman with my great family last name upon this famous ship…I’ve always been drawn to this song my whole lifetime …whoever you were Eugene O’Brien I know you stood tall and proud ….

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