UPside of Life: The gales of November and the fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald sits 530 feet below the waves in silent watch over the waters that led to its demise, the same station it has held for the past 35 years.

The mighty ship, at one time one of the largest ships to ever sail the Great Lakes, has been the focus of speculation, investigation and mystery for the past three and a half decades. Divers have visited the wreckage of the freighter, which apparently twisted in two in the storm that claimed it. It is, and will likely always be, the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes.

Anyone who has ever heard the ballad by Gordon Lightfoot about the tragic sinking of the massive vessel knows what happened on that fateful night. The gales of November--very similar to the wind storms that rattled the Upper Peninsula and left thousands without power just weeks ago--had blown across the land and incited the rage of the Great Lakes, the most fearsome of which is Lake Superior.

The Fitzgerald, a massive 729-foot iron ore carrier designed to travel the lakes without difficulty, had a full load of taconite pellets when it struck out across that very lake from Superior, Wis., and headed toward Zug Island.

As the storm grew in intensity, so did Lake Superior's wrath. Waves topping 35 feet--the size of a three-story building--white-capped across its surface. Winds picked up to over 50 knots with gusts up to over 86 knots. Snow whipped about, making visibility limited.

On November 10 at 3:30 p.m. the captain of the Fitzgerald, Ernest M. McSorley, contacted a nearby ship, Arthur M. Anderson, captained by Jesse B. "Bernie" Cooper, and let them know that they were taking on water and had top-side damage, including in the report that the Fitzgerald was suffering a list, had lost two vent covers and some railings. About 20 minutes later, McSorley called the Anderson and reported that his radar was not working and asked that the Anderson travel with them, keep them in sight and help guide them with their own radar.

Communication with the Fitzgerald continued as McSorley followed the Anderson's directions toward the relative safety of Whitefish Bay. He contacted the U.S. Coast Guard station in Grand Marais after 4 p.m. and then hailed ships in the Whitefish Point area to find out if the Whitefish Point light and navigational beacon were operational. Captain Cedric Woodward of the Avafors answered. The light and the radio were out.

Woodward contacted the Fitzgerald again at 5:30 p.m. to let the ship know the light was back on, but the beacon wasn't.

"We're in a big sea," came McSorley's response. "I've never seen anything like it in my life."

Almost two hours later, as the ship continued to head toward the bay, the last communication with the Fitzgerald came. At approximately 7:10 p.m., the captain of the Anderson contacted McSorley to notify him of an up-bound ship they had picked up on radar. He asked how the Fitzgerald was doing.

"We are holding our own," McSorley reported.

A few minutes later, without a distress signal, the doomed ship sank. By 7:20, the Anderson, not being able to pick up the Fitzgerald on radar, attempted to reach them by radio, but to no avail. It wasn't until 8:32 p.m. that the captain of the Anderson was able to convince the Coast Guard that the mighty ship had sunk.

The Anderson, at the request of the Coast Guard, turned around in the storm and looked for survivors from the 29-man crew. None were ever found.

Today marks the anniversary of the ship's sinking. An annual memorial, typically attended by family of those lost in the tragedy, will be held at the Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point.

Beyond the Fitzgerald, it's also a good time to take a moment and remember that while the U.P. is surrounded by the beauty of the Great Lakes, there is a fierce and deadly side to them as well.

Since the Invincible sunk in 1816 to 1975 when the Fitzgerald went down, the Whitefish Point area has been the final resting place for at least 240 ships. The Great Lakes, as a whole, have thousands of shipwrecks with an estimated 25,000 lives lost since shipping began here.

For more information on the Edmund Fitzgerald, or other Whitefish Point shipwrecks, visit the Shipwreck Museum website.

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of the U.P. Second Wave and a full-time freelance writer. He was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula. He can be reached via email.
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