The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: A 40TH ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE

Pierre Tolliver on board the Edmund Fitzgerald

Pierre Tolliver on board the Edmund Fitzgerald

BY Paul Rosenfeldt

This November 10th marks 40 years since the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom of Lake Superior in a vicious storm. As Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” says, “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down to the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.”

The legend, thanks to Lightfoot’s song, has spread a bit farther than that. A November storm sent the Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior. Lightfoot’s song sent her down in history. Lightfoot clearly sought to pen an American epic poem in the format of a popular song. Calling Lake Superior by its Ojibwe name, “Gitche Gumee,” he reaches straight back to Longfellow, who pioneered the genre with such poems as “Song of Hiawatha,” which takes place “by the shores of Gitche Gumee.”

Pierre today

Pierre today

But even Longfellow, whose poems consume hundreds of lines, is criticized for taking too much poetic license and distorting history. How did Lightfoot do in his six minute song?

“The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.” An attempt to romanticize the lake that claimed the Fitzgerald? Maybe, but it’s true. In most lakes, a body eventually surfaces because bacterial decomposition produces gas. The body bloats and floats. Superior is a different story. Swimmers know that even her shallow shoreline waters are cold. But Superior’s lower strata almost never rise above 39°F. The frigid temperature suppresses bacterial action. No bloat, no float. The body stays at the bottom.

No bodies were ever recovered from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

“With a load of iron ore 26,000 tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.” Precisely. That was her stated cargo capacity, though she often managed to exceed it.

“As the big ships go she was bigger than most.” When launched in 1958, she was the biggest boat on the Great Lakes. Even though her length was surpassed, she went on to set six seasonal records for cargo tonnage. Some of her nicknames were “Big Fitz,” “Mighty Fitz,” and ominously, “Titanic of the Great Lakes.”

Consider this: Big Fitz sank in 530 feet of water, nearly 200 feet less than her length. At 729 feet, she spanned two city blocks, and more than two football fields.

“With a crew and a captain well-seasoned.” The crew of 29 that steamed out of Duluth aboard the Fitz on November 9, 1975 was a mixed bag. Capt. Ernest McSorley was 63 and thinking about retirement. First mate John “Jack” McCarthy was 62. The “old cook,” Robert Rafferty, was 62 and was filling in for the Fitz’s regular cook, who was ill. Most of the crew were middle-aged. Five were in their early 20’s. The youngest, deckhand Mark Thomas, was only 21, hardly well-seasoned.

But many of the positions on the Fitz did not require much experience. Take, for example, the case of Pierre Tolliver, who I interviewed for this story. Pierre had no seafaring experience, but was hired as a “coal passer.” Then in his mid-30’s, Pierre sailed on the Fitz in the fall of 1969 and spring of 1970. Like Pierre, many crew members came and went. Of the 29 who went down on the Fitz, Pierre knew three: wheelsman John Simmons, maintenance man John Mazes and oiler Blaine Wilhelm. Pierre describes all three as “nice guys.”

Simmons loved to shoot pool and often walked the deck for exercise. Mazes was quiet by nature, but often sat and talked with Pierre. As a coal passer, Pierre did just about any engine-related task they asked of him. The Fitz still burned coal in 1970, but was converted to oil two years later.

During Pierre’s stint on the Fitz, she sailed out of Silver Bay, Minnesota, an hour or so north of Duluth. It was Duluth she sailed from on her final voyage. Lightfoot says she was “coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.” Here, I thought, Lightfoot surely had it wrong. She was carrying iron ore that was bound for a steel mill.

But wait: the Fitz was not carrying raw ore, but taconite pellets. The pellets are made by grinding or milling raw ore to powder and capturing the oar-bearing granules with a magnet. The powder is then combined with clay and other additives and formed into pellets.
“Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms when she left fully loaded for Cleveland”? No, the Fitzgerald was bound for Zug Island, just outside Detroit. However, she was soon to dock for the winter in Cleveland. And, after all, “Cleveland” is an easier rhyme than “Detroit.”

The Fitz cleared the breakwater at Duluth just before two on the afternoon of November 9 with a 700 mile voyage before her. It would take just over two days. A “typical” November storm was predicted, but its center was to pass south of the big lake. Still, the captain of the S.S. Wilfred Sykes, which departed Duluth that same afternoon, had a premonition that the storm was headed straight for Superior. He immediately turned the Sykes north, seeking shelter from the Canadian shoreline.

As the storm gathered, the Fitzgerald and the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson, sailing out of Two Harbors, Minnesota, followed suit. But there was to be no shelter from this storm. By 7 PM on November 9, the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for all of Lake Superior. By the wee hours of the 10th, the Fitzgerald was braving winds of up to 60 mph. The gale warnings were upgraded to storm warnings at 2 AM.

Of the storm, Lightfoot sings: “Could it be the North wind they’d been feeling?” and later, “When afternoon came it was freezing rain, in the face of a hurricane West-wind.” Did Lightfoot take poetic license with the wind direction? Perhaps a bit. But as the storm gathered, it became circular, rotating counterclockwise. Initially, the Fitzgerald and the Anderson sustained winds from the Northeast. But once the center of the storm overtook them just before 2 PM on the 10th, the winds shifted, hammering their sterns from the Northwest. Then came snow at about 2:45 PM.

“Hurricane West-wind” was scarcely an exaggeration. In the final hours, Capt. McSorley reported “the worst sea I have ever been in.” The Anderson reported steady winds of 65 to 70 mph with gusts to 100 mph.

And the waves? At 1 AM on November 10, they were 10 feet. By late afternoon, the waves had swelled to 25 feet with rogue waves as high as 35 feet.

edmund-fitzgerald33Less than an hour after the snow began came the beginning of the end. At about 3:30 PM, the Fitz passed just north of Caribou Island. Fifteen miles behind the Fitz, the Anderson’s Capt. Cooper and his first mate watched her on radar.

Just north of Caribou Island lies an underwater hazard the sailors all know: Six Fathom Shoal. A fathom is six feet. The shoal is therefore only about 36 feet deep. Take a 730 foot ship seesawing on 25 foot waves and 36 feet is like the shallow end at the Holiday Inn.

But this was no holiday. The Anderson’s first mate pointed the Fitz’s radar blip out to Capt. Cooper. Both judged that she was in too close. Minutes later, the Fitz’s Capt. McSorley called the Anderson. As Lightfoot tells it, “the captain wired in he had water coming in, and the good ship and crew were in peril.” McSorley told Cooper that he had a fence rail down, some ballast vents torn off and the ship was listing, meaning she had indeed taken on water. McSorley did not, however, at any time declare his ship in peril. Great Lakes ship captains are notoriously stoic: they pride their professionalism and they do not cry wolf.

Capt. Cooper always believed that the Fitzgerald had “hogged” or sagged as she momentarily grounded upon Six Fathom Shoal. The key for him was the fence rail: only extreme flexing of the hull would snap it.

The amount of flex or spring in the Fitz’s hull has been the subject of much debate through the years. Some say the Fitzgerald had too many welds, which don’t allow as much give as rivets, making her too rigid. Others insist it was just the opposite: she would wag and spring like a diving board in heavy seas.

Pierre Tolliver well understands the latter school of thought. Admittedly not an experienced seaman, Pierre was amazed at the 600-foot access tunnels that ran between the bow and stern ends of the ship. In heavy seas, the door at the other end of the tunnel would wag right out of sight!

Whatever the case, the Fitz was taking on water. McSorley reported that both of his pumps were running.

The situation grew darker. At about 4:10 PM, Capt. McSorley called the Anderson to report that the ship’s radar had been knocked out. To make matters worse, both the radio and light beacons on the Whitefish Point lighthouse failed in the storm. Whitefish Point stands at the entrance to Whitefish Bay, which offered relative safety from the towering seas. But with both snow and night falling and radars and lighthouse beacons out, the Fitzgerald was now quite literally blind.

Her lifeline was the Anderson, just twelve miles behind her. Could the Anderson guide her to safe harbor in Whitefish Bay? Shortly after 6:30, two gigantic 35 foot waves slammed into the Anderson. Capt. Cooper would long remember them, for at 7:10 PM the Anderson had her last radio contact with the Fitz. It was surprisingly undramatic. Capt. McSorley reported the Fitz was holding her own. She was then just nine miles ahead of the Anderson. But moments later, the Fitz vanished from the Anderson’s radar never to reappear. Equally alarming, the Anderson’s officers could see the lights of three ships more distant than the Fitz, but not hers!

The Mighty Fitz was gone — gone without a distress call, a mayday or an S.O.S.

It was then that Capt. Cooper recalled the huge rogue waves that had struck the Anderson just after 6:30 and calculated when they would have reached the crippled Fitzgerald. Could it be?

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” That question runs far deeper than Superior’s icy abyss. But the absence of a distress call suggests that the end took only seconds. How? Lightfoot lays out the three leading theories: “She might’ve split up or she might have capsized, they may have broke deep and took water.”

Capsizing seems unlikely. Having taken on water, the Fitz would have had a low center of gravity. Some believe that a structural failure caused her hull to break up on the surface. They look to the Fitz’s maintenance history, which included six collisions and groundings.

Edmund_Fitzgerald_1971restoredPierre recalls one such collision, when the Fitz tried to pass a Canadian ship on the St. Mary River, bound for the locks at Sault Ste. Marie. That would have been the Hochelaga on April 30, 1970. Pierre remembers a huge gash that took several days to repair. He has always wondered if that collision left the Fitz vulnerable, “when the gales of November came early.”

In the judgment of Capt. Cooper, the closest witness to the tragedy, it likely happened this way: the big ship, her buoyancy already compromised by water in her hold, was struck from behind by the first of the two monster waves that had rocked the Anderson minutes before. Her stern reared up and her bow plowed down beneath the surface. Her cargo shifted forward with the pull of gravity as the second rogue wave hit, delivering the coup de grace. The bow was now caught in a death spiral. The more it dove, the more the cargo shifted. The more the cargo shifted, the more air was forced out, and the faster it sank.

Meanwhile, the Fitz’s stern end, its buoyancy momentarily increased by the rising air, still struggled against the waves. The opposing forces of gravity and buoyancy now wrenched and twisted her hull, finally breaking it in two as it descended to its final resting place, just 15 miles short of Whitefish Bay, as Lightfoot again accurately recounts.

The search began within three hours. The waters of the big lake still slashed and snarled, but gave not a clue that they had just swallowed a 730 foot ore boat. The next morning, the mangled remains of the Fitz’s two lifeboats, a raft, a few life vests and other flotsam confirmed the unthinkable.

That same morning, father Richard Ingalls, rector of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit – Lightfoot’s “Maritime Sailors Cathedral” – heard the news and saw his duty clearly. He drove to the church, climbed the steps to the bell tower and pulled the cord 29 times, “for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Lightfoot’s line, “In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,” suggests that Ingalls conducted a memorial service for the crew. Not then, though the Mariners’ Church memorial service would later become an annual tradition.

Despite such modest poetic license, Lightfoot has always shown the utmost respect for the sailors and their families. When one protested that their church was certainly not musty, Lightfoot began substituting “rustic” in his performances of the ballad.

That November, there were only private memorial services, in towns like Iron River and Ashtabula and others that dot the rim of the Great Lakes basin, where most of the crew came from. But Lightfoot saw to it that they would not be forgotten. Their legend does live on from the Chippewa on down to the big lake…and beyond, far beyond.

Rest in peace, Mighty Fitz and all who were aboard her!

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