SS Edmund Fitzgerald

From Academic Kids

Missing image
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a ship that sank suddenly on Lake Superior, November 10, 1975. The ship went down without a distress signal in a November gale. It sank in 530 feet (162 m) of water at a position 46 59.9' N, 85 6.6' W, in Canadian waters about 17 statute miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. All 29 crew were killed.


The ship

The Fitzgerald was a "Laker", a 729-foot-long ore bulk carrier with a capacity of 25,000 tons. Its large cargo hold loaded through twenty-one water-tight hatches, each measuring 11'7" by 54' of 5/16" steel. When it was built in 1958, at the Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, Michigan, Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. Comparatively, ships today can be 1,000 by 105-feet with twice the capacity. The ship's engines were originally coal-fired, but were converted to oil during the 1971-72 winter layover.

The ship was owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and chartered to the Columbia Transportation Division of the Oglebay Norton Corporation. It was used to carry taconite from mines near Duluth, Minnesota to iron works in Detroit, Toledo and other ports. Its name comes from the CEO of the Mutual Insurance Company and was christened by his wife.

The last voyage

The Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin on the afternoon of November 9, 1975 under Captain Ernest M. McSorley. It was en route to Detroit, Michigan with a full cargo. Crossing Lake Superior at about 15 mph, it encountered a massive storm, reporting winds in excess of 50 knots and waves approaching 16 feet. A second freighter, Arthur M. Anderson, was following the Fitzgerald. Due to the storm, the locks at Sault Sainte Marie were closed. The freighters altered their course northward, seeking shelter along the Canadian coast. Later, they would cross to Whitefish Bay and approach the Sault locks. On the afternoon of November 10, the Fitzgerald reported a list and some top-side damage including the loss of radar, but did not indicate a serious problem. The ship slowed to come within range of receiving Anderson's radar data, but suddenly sank before this could happen. The ship's last communication was at approximately 19:10 that evening, responding on their condition, "We are holding our own." No distress signal was received. By 19:20, Anderson could neither raise the Fitzgerald nor detect it on radar. At 20:32, Anderson informed the U.S. Coast Guard of their concern for the ship.


Once Anderson noted the loss of Fitzgerald, a search was launched for survivors. The initial search consisted of the Anderson, and a second freighter, William Clay Ford. The efforts of a third freighter, the Canadian vessel Hilda Marjanne, were foiled by the weather. The Coast Guard launched three aircraft, but could not mobilize any ships. The Coast Guard buoy tender, Woodbrush, was able to launch within two and a half hours, but took a day to arrive. The search recovered debris including lifeboats and rafts, but no survivors.

Underwater survey

The wreck was first located by a U.S. Navy aircraft with on-board magnetic anomaly detector equipment, normally used to detect submarines. The wreck was further surveyed using side scan sonar on November 14 - 16, 1975 by the Coast Guard. The sonar revealed two large objects lying close together on the lake floor. A second survey took place from November 22 through 25 by a private contractor, Seaward, Inc.

In 1976, from May 20 through 28, an uncrewed U.S. Navy submersible photographed the wreck. This submersible, the CURV III, consisted of an underwater vehicle connected via umbilical control to a surface support ship. On-board imaging equipment included one 35 mm still and two black and white video cameras. It found Edmund Fitzgerald lying in two large pieces under 530 feet of water, far deeper than SCUBA penetration allows. The bow section, approximately 276 feet long, lay upright in the mud. The stern section lay 170 feet away, inverted (face down), at a 50 degree angle from the bow. Metal and taconite heaps between the bow and stern comprised the remnants of the mid-section.


When Fitzgerald first vanished, it was widely believed the ship snapped in half on the surface due to storm action. Precedent surface breakups suggested bow and stern sections would be found miles apart on the lake floor. When underwater surveys revealed these sections mere yards from each other, it was concluded the ship broke when it hit bottom.

A Coast Guard investigation postulated the accident was caused by ineffective hatch closures. These devices were unable to prevent waves from inundating the cargo hold. The flooding occurred gradually and probably imperceptibly throughout the final day, and finally resulted in a fatal loss of buoyancy and stability, plummeting to the bottom without warning.

The Coast Guard report proved controversial. The most common alternate theory contends inoperative radar forced the crew to rely on inaccurate maps. As a result, Fitzgerald ran aground on a shoal without the crew being aware of it and received bottom damage, which caused it to gradually take on water until it sank suddenly in deep water. This theory is supported by final radio communications between Anderson and Fitzgerald. If the hull was indeed breached, it would be difficult to prove. Fitzgerald has settled in mud up to its load marks, making it impossible to inspect for damage.


The ship's bell was recovered from the wreck in 1995 and is now in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point near Paradise, Michigan. An anchor from the ship lost on an earlier trip was recovered from the Detroit River and is on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit.

Mariner's Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times the day after the sinking and continues to hold an annual memorial including ringing the church bell once for each life lost.

Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a song about the tragedy. It proved to be a hit and made the incident the most famous marine disaster in the history of Great Lakes shipping.

Although the last ship lost, and the largest, Fitzgerald is not alone on the bottom. The Great Lakes have a long history of nautical disaster. Nearly 6,000 shipwrecks occurred between 1878 and 1898 alone. About a quarter of those were listed as total losses. Some ships and crews simply vanished in storms. A number of divable marine preserves have been established that contain multiple sunken ships.


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