Sunday, November 10, 2013

NOVEMBER 10 = The "Edmund Fitzgerald" Sinks

"When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin'...Fellas, it's too rough t'feed 'ya"......At seven p.m., a main hatchway gave in, he said.....Fellas, it's been good t'know 'ya!"......The captain wired in he had water comin' in......and the good ship and crew was in peril....And later that night when 'is lights went outta sight.....came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes....when the waves turn the minutes to hours?........The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay.......if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er, ........ They might have split up or they might 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."

- From the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot, released in 1976.

On todays date, November 10, in 1975 the 729-foot freighter S.S.Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm on Lake Superior. So named for the chairman of the Northwestern Life Insurance Co. which financed her construction, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest and fastest ship on the Great Lakes at the time of her launching in June of 1958. She was carrying a heavy load of iron ore pellets from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit, Michigan and carried a crew of 29 men, under the command of Capt. Ernest Mc Sorley (right).

The ship had departed on November 9th. By early on the morning of the 10th, the Fitzgerald had entered a storm that was producing gale-force winds of over 60 MPH, and waves over 15 feet high, By around 2:00 a.m., another ship, the S.S. Arthur Anderson was near enough that her captain, Jessie Cooper, could see Fitzgerald about 15 miles away from him. The two captains discussed the storm's power, and elected to alter course and head for the Canadian shore and the safety of Whitefish Bay - on the Canadian/ Michigan boarder where they would find shelter from the high winds. But the passage was proving too much for the Fitzgerald. At 3:30 a.m., Capt. Mc Sorley radioed Capt. Cooper that Fitzgerald was damaged, and listing to one side. By 4:10, a.m. the radar systems on board the Fitzgerald failed as did those at Whitefish Bay, leaving her traveling blind, but for assistance from the Anderson. At 7:10 a.m., the Anderson radioed to the Fitzgerald to ask about her condition. "We're holding our own." came the reply. It was the last word to be received from the damaged vessel. At 7:15, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the S.S. Anderson's radar view in an area of heavy rain and was not seen again. A search was launched, but no survivors were found. On November 17th, the wreck was located just 17 miles from Whitefish Bay beneath 530 feet of water. All of the 29 crew
were lost. The Coast Guard concluded that the ship was sunk when water from the heavy storm waves flooded her compartments through loose hatch covers. But the finding is disputed by many who are familiar with the wreck. One theory, supported by Capt. Cooper of the "Anderson" is that Fitzgerald likely touched rocks in a shoal area causing damage to her bottom, causing her to taking in water and slowly sink despite having her ballast pumps in full operation.

Gordon Lightfoot Immortalizes the Loss of the Fitzgerald in Song

Not long after the sinking, singer Gordon Lightfoot read about the tragedy, and was moved to write a song about it as a memorial to the men who were lost - part of which is quoted above. The song rose to great popularity, ultimately becoming a Top Ten hit on the song charts. This writer can remember the song being played on radio regularly during the '70's. The tale it told was one of the things that got me so interested in history - and the stories it tells. One of the "wives and the sons and the daughters" of whom the song spoke was Pam Johnson, daughter of Robert C. Rafferty, who was steward on the Fitzgerald when she was lost. Mrs. Johnson, when asked why the wreck of the Fitzgerald stands out among all of the other wrecks on the Great Lakes said: "The wreck stands out most because of Gordon Lightfoot's song." Thus, we have another example to go with the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (painted by Picasso, TIH April 26) and the Mutiny on the HMS Bounty (filmed by three different directors, TIH April 28) - of a moment in history that would quite likely be a little-known footnote being brought into fore of popular memory by an artistic portrayal.

For more about the storms and gales of the month of November please log onto "Today in History's" annex or sister site (cleverly named "Today in History II") to read about "The Storms of November", an article which I previously had published on "Suite 101" but which they dropped from their exalted roles for reasons which remain as mysterious as the gales of November....
The web address for the specific article is:

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


"Marine Casualty Report - S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Sinking in Lake Superior"- U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation Report Report No. USCG 16732/64216

"Edmund Fitzgerald Fact Sheet" - U.S. Army Corps of Engineers U.S. Government Printing Office: 1991-545-160.

"The Edmund Fitzgerald: the Song of the Bell" by Kathy-Jo Wargin, Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, Michigan, 2003.

"Gordon Lightfoot Complete Greatest Hits" by Gordon Lightfoot; Audio CD

+ 3733.
+ 1827.


  1. Comment from Scott Lanter, 9/7/12:
    I'm really surprised no one has commented about this story. I would like to commend you, Brian, for an excellent job writing this article. It was not only well written, but it was also very informative. It's evident you have done your research. Thank you very much, sir. Gordon Lightfoot's song is what caused me to take an interest in the Edmund Fitzgerald many years ago. I'm fascinated to always read stories about the ship, it's crew, their family, and theories about how the ship met its demise.

  2. My reply to Scott Lanter, 9/7/12:
    Thank you very much, Scott! I know that many people at last look at my blog, becasue it has had nearly 140,000 page views. But actual comments on it have been fairly rare. So I do very much appreciate your taking the time to write.

    Yeah I can remember many afternoons back in the 70's hearing Gordon Lightfoot's sad but fascinating song on the radio... I just sort of filed it away for the day when computers came around and enabled me to finally look it up. But happily, I live in Cincinnati wherein the University Library had the coast Guard reports to really pour over. Anyway, thanks again for your kind comments.

  3. The following comment was sent to me on 1/11/14 from
    "LRCDMC" :

    Edmund Fitzgerald Tragedy ~ The Ignored Responsibility Factor

    Coming out of the Superior, WI port, the Edmund Fitzgerald had followed the Anderson, which was traveling at a constant 14.6 miles per hour but the faster Fitzgerald pulled ahead at about 3:00 a.m. Captain McSorley of the Fitzgerald just made the worst decision of his life by rushing ahead of the Anderson knowing full well that he was distancing himself from the Anderson’s ready assistance in threatening weather.

    Captain Paquette of the Sykes reported that McSorley, “who had a reputation for not turning aside or slowing down“, stated, "We’re going to try for some lee from Isle Royale.”

    McSorley called the Anderson again to report a radar failure and asked the Anderson to keep track of them.

    At 2:45 p.m. the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald, which was about 16 miles ahead at the time.

    It was during this period of time that the navigational deficient Fitzgerald “raked a shoal". It happened while the Whitefish Point light and radio beacon were not available as navigation aids.
    The shoal theory was supported by a 1976 Canadian hydrographic survey. Officers from the Anderson observed that the Fitzgerald sailed through this exact area.

    Shortly after 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson to report that the Fitzgerald was taking on water and had lost two vent covers and a fence railing. The vessel had also developed a list.

    The Fitzgerald, effectively blind, slowed to let the Anderson come within a 10-mile range so she could receive radar guidance from the other ship.
    Sadly, by this time it was too late. Had McSorley not run ahead of the Anderson but stayed close, he would not have wandered into the shoal…. he would have been on the safe course of the navigational operative Anderson and not have struck the shoal.

    One must ask why only the Fitzgerald went down when all of the other vessels out in this horrendous storm did not. The answer does not lie in “weather conditions”.

    McSorley’s final trip was due to his unsuitable reputation as a ship’s captain who “would not turn aside or slow down” which interfered with his judgment and his responsibility for the protection of his crew.