Final Journey

History of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a 729 foot freighter, used to transport iron ore across Lake Superior. Built in 1958 by the River Rouge Works of the Great Lakes Engineering Company, she was owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee and named for its president and chairman of the board. She was employed by the Oglebay Norton Company of Cleveland, Ohio, to transport iron ore across the Great Lakes. Until 1971, she was the largest ship on the Great Lakes.

On November 10, 1975, while heading for Detroit, Michigan, the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost in a severe gale seventeen miles northwest of White Fish Point. The actual circumstances of the loss remain a mystery to this day. It is not understood why this great ship was lost while other ships were able to survive. Further compounding the mystery is the fact that the crew and captain were well experienced in the handling of the ship and the conditions of the area. It is assumed that the sinking took place quickly, perhaps within a minute or less.

The Journey

On the afternoon of November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley, a seasoned veteran of the Great Lakes. The forecast was calling for a strong weather system, with northeast winds, periods of snow, and estimated 15 foot seas. Because of this, Captain McSorley decided to hug the northern coast of Lake Superior. As he passed the Arthur M. Anderson, he noticed that it had left Two Harbours and was proceeding along the same course. The two ships agreed that this course would be the best to follow under the given circumstances.

At 1:00 a.m., on November 10, 1975, the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald reported the winds to be at 52 knots, or 60 miles per hour. This weather report, along with others received, prompted a call for “storm warnings”, the ultimate weather warning on the Great Lakes. Other reports indicated that the winds would be rapidly changing direction. The situation was dramatically worsening for all vessels on Lake Superior.

In these conditions, and with one of its two radar systems out, the Edmund Fitzgerald entered the 22-mile wide channel between the Caribou Islands and Michipicoten. The charts being used would later be shown to be inaccurate as to the reports of the shallow areas in this region. As the Edmund Fitzgerald entered this location, the distance between it and the Arthur M. Anderson had increased to seventeen miles.

The course taken by McSorley led him to cross a then-unknown shoal which was only 36 feet from the surface on a calm day. As the Fitzgerald drew 27 feet, coupled with the rough seas, it is presumed that the Fitzgerald hit this shoal. The rough seas would have easily covered the sounds and feelings of the great ship striking the shoal, so it is possible that the crew never knew what they had struck.

Later, at approximately 3:30 p.m., the first mate on the Anderson noted that the Fitzgerald was perhaps too close to shore. Indeed, Captain Cooper would later report that the Fitzgerald was crossing closer to Caribou Islands than he would even want his ship to be. The Anderson also noted that the winds were running at 43 knots and that waves in excess of 12 feet were passing over it.

The supposition that the Fitzgerald struck the shoal is supported by Captain McSorley’s report that he had a fence rail down, damaged vents and that his ship was beginning to list. The report of the fence rail being down is of particular interest. These cable rails run the length of the ship and would be the first to react to any sort of stresses placed upon the whole of the ship. If the Fitzgerald had struck a shoal, part of the ship would be supported by the shoal, while the other would be riding with the seas. This would cause an unnatural stress upon the structure of the ship, and cause unusual strain upon the cables.

The note of a list indicates that the Fitzgerald was no longer riding evenly on the seas. Instead she was leaning to one side. McSorley went on to inform Cooper, after inquiry, that he had both of his pumps going. These pumps, each capable of pumping 7,000 gallons of water per minute, pump water out of the ballast tanks of the ship, but do not remove water from the cargo holds of the ships. It is conceivable that water was entering the cargo holds of the ship from a stress fracture, further complicating matters for McSorley and his crew.

Under the circumstances that he was aware of, McSorley told Cooper that he was slowing his ship and asked the Anderson to “stay by me until we get down.” By slowing his ship, McSorley added another potential danger to the situation. The slower speed of the ship would allow for the sea to drive the ship into the troughs of the waves, a danger avoided by maintaining speed. McSorley had to have known this, but traded the risks for certain assistance from the Anderson.

It was at this time that the Coast Guard, upon being advised of winds ranging from 72 to 82 knots, advised all ships to seek safe harbor until the storm passed. Locks in the area were closed and the Mackinac bridge was forced to close to highway traffic. Many ships at anchor needed power just to remain so.

At some point shortly thereafter, the second radar system on the Fitzgerald ceased functioning. (Examination of the wreck site would reveal that the radar mast was missing.) McSorley’s only on-board navigational aid was now the Radio Direction Finder, which relied upon a signal sent from Whitefish Point Lighthouse. Unhappily, this beacon, supposedly fully automated and now unmanned, ceased functioning during this severe storm. The Fitzgerald could now only rely upon the radar reports of the Anderson.

The weather continued to worsen. Winds were now gusting to 84 knots (over 96 miles per hour) and seas were reaching 30 feet. McSorley would report that seas were now over his decks. He described it to another ship in the area as “the worst sea I have ever been in.” Perhaps unknown to McSorley, the Fitzgerald was more than likely taking on more water with every passing wave, making it harder and harder for the ship to cope with each new onslaught.

First Mate Morgan Clark, on the Anderson, called the Fitzgerald at 6:20 p.m., concerned that she was not maintaining course. His radar reflected that the Fitzgerald was veering off to his left. He radioed McSorley, who reported his heading at 141 degrees. As this was the same heading the Anderson was taking, Clark became concerned that gyrocompass problems may have been added to the woes of the Fitzgerald.

About this time, two very large waves struck the Anderson. Captain Cooper would report that the last wave was strong enough to put water onto his bridge deck, some 35 feet above the waterline. He believes that these two seas, the largest of the trip, caught up to, and doomed, the Edmund Fitzgerald.

At 7:10 p.m., Clark radioed McSorley, informing him that a vessel was moving out of Whitefish Bay, but would not be a problem, as the Fitzgerald would easily miss it. Out of concern, he asked how they were doing. “We are holding our own,” was McSorley’s reply. This was to be the last transmission of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Marshall, J. R. (1992). Shipwrecks of Lake Superior. Duluth, Minnesota: Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc.

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