SS Edmund Fitzgerald

by Matthew Anderson


Year Built

1958

Year Sank

1975

Depth

49 ft (15 m)

Difficulty Level

Technical


SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Wreck Location

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald lies at the bottom of the southeastern portion of Lake Superior in 530 feet of water. It was originally discovered by sonar shortly after the sinking in 1975 and first documented by several expeditions in 1976 including one by Jean Michel Cousteau, son of famous oceanographer Jaques Cousteau. The wreck is in two main sections, the bow and the stern. The bow lies mostly buried in the mud upright pointing towards Whitefish Bay. All the windows have been blown out and destroyed. The protective visor over the wheelhouse windows has been completely flattened down and there is a lot of similar damage throughout the superstructure of the bow, indicating the Edmund Fitzgerald met a very violent and catastrophic end. This is futher indicated by the stern which lies completely upside down beside the bow; all superstructure buried deep into the mud. Almost none of the bodies including that of Captain McSorley were ever found. The wreck continues to rust and deteriorate over time despite the fresh water nature of Lake Superior. The last dive in 1993 indicated that zebra and cuaga muscles were begginning to grow on her metal superstructure and that rusting had gotten worse. Diving on the wreck has been completely banned by the Canadian goverment by all means including ROVs and manned submersibles as the wreck is entirely located within the territorial waters of the Canadian province of Ontario. If the Fitzgerald were to be dived, then it would be a technical dive as it is over 200 feet. A 2012 sonar image shows the Fitzgerald to have deteriorated heavily since 1993. The main deck behind the superstructure, which included the forward cargo hatches appears to have collapsed entirely and the sides of the hull are bending outwards.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   46° 59' 54.6" N      Longitude:   -85° 6' 36.6012" W

Description

 

(Edmund Fitzgerald in her early years as a coal fired steel hulled steamship. Even before her demise, the Fitzgerald was a well known icon of the Great Lakes to those that lived along it.)

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a "Laker" type iron ore bulk freighter launched on June 7, 1958 by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rogue, Michigan for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company one year after its near sister ship Arthur B. Homer. Both the Homer and Fitzgerald were the largest iron ore carriers built on the Great Lakes. While Northwestern Mutual owned both ships (which woud later prove ironic in the Fitzgerald's case), the freighters were leased out to dedicated shipping companies. Arthur B. Homer was assigned to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation while Edmund Fitzgerald was assigned to the Columbia Transportation Division of the Oglebay Norton Company and immediately became flagship. Despite having been built in Michigan and having operated mostly around Michigan, Edmund Fitzgerald was homeported in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Size wise, both the Arthur B. Homer and Edmund Fitzgerald were impressive even compared to oceanic ships, with an outstanding length of 711 to 729 feet. As originally built, Edmund Fitzgerald was a coal burning steamship with a Westinghouse steam turbine driving a single four bladed propeller at her rear. The "Big Fitz" as she was affectionately known by her crew, also boasted several private staterooms for corporate guests of Oglebay Norton and Northwestern Mutual. Until 1959, Edmund Fitzgerald held the record for the longest ship on the Great Lakes.

(A video of the once proud ship transiting the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie in 1967. In only 8 years time, this magnificent American vessel would be at the bottom of Lake Superior.)


Between 1959 and 1975, the life of the Edmund Fitzgerald was routine and mostly uneventful, clocking nearly 750 succesful round trips, though was occasionally greeted by positive and negative events. The Fitzgerald often held records for excellent safety and broke records for most tonnage hauled during a single shipping season. Ftizgerald, like all Great Lakes vessels often had to pass through violent storms that rivaled those of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with waves sometimes reaching upwards of 100 feet.

Fitzgerald however was also noted for her numerous problems. Minor incidents included groundings and collisions between 1969 and 1974. A more serious issue was determined by poor construction and design. Although she had a good safety record, the Fitzgerald's hull was, according to the anecdotes of mariners who set foot aboard her and sailed on her, a vessel with a loose keel. The ship would bend and flex in sometimes un-natural means and the keel would at times be lifted over two inches above the bottom of Fitzgerald's hull during a violent storm. Furthermore, she had few watertight compartments and was rumored to be overloaded beyond what her designers had meant for her to carry. The same problems were reported aboard the Homer.

(The Edmund Fitzgerald seen in her final years riding far lower in the water than she should have ever been allowed to. There is a very good chance that this is what helped lead to her demise. Photo by user "Greenmars" on Wikimedia Commons.)

As if the aforementioned problems weren't enough, Northwestern Mutual had the Ftizgerald partially rebuilt in her later years to handle thousands of extra tons of iron ore, which substantially raised the waterline, increasing the maximum draft of the ship, maximum weight of the ship and height of the deck above water. However, Northwestern Mutual apparently decided to remedy the problem regarding Fitzgerald's loose keel. The Fitzgerald would have extra steel plates installed between the hull bottom and her keel which would ensure the keel would no loner move freely from the hull and would stay fastened in place. The retrofit was planned for November 12, 1975 upon completion of the 1975 season. The modification never took place and the patch plates could be seen at the shipyard a couple of years after the Fitzgerald's demise.

The Edmund Fitzgerald departed on what would be her last voyage the afternoon of November 9, 1975 leaving the iron ore docks of Superior, Wisconsin bound for a Zug Island steel foundry near Detroit, Michigan. She was under command of Canadian born and highly experienced ship master Captain Ernest M. McSorely. She would be travelling in tandem with the ore freighter Arthur M. Anderson under command of Captain Bernie Cooper to the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie. By early the next morning, the Anderson and Fitzgerald encountered a powerful November gale with winds up to 50 miles an hour. As the afternoon dragged on, the storm worsened. Both ships crews could feel the effects.

Around 3:00 in the afternoon, both ships had passed Caribou Island, Ontario, home of the notorious Six Fathom Shoal, a sharpy rocky outcropping more than capable of tearing into the hull of a deep draft vessel in stormy weather. On this voyage, Fitzgerald was fully loaded with iron ore. It is not known if Fitzgerald had struck bottom on the shoal or another nearby outcropping, but upon passing Caribou Island, the problems started. At 3:30 PM, Captain McSorely reported to Captain Cooper aboard the Anderson that the Fitzgerald was taking on water and had a reported list of 20 degrees towards starboard. It was also revealed that a fence railing on the Fitzgerald's deck had been broken and a number of vent covers were missing. McSorely had also ordered the pumps to be turned on in order to keep the ingress of water out of the cargo hold.

By 4:10 PM, the list had not gotten any better and the Fitzgerald was still taking on water, effectively sinking. The situation was worsened when McSorely reported to Cooper that his radar was gone. With no visibility in a hurricane-like storm and no radar to guide him, the Fitzgerald was sailing blinded moving slower with every gallon of water entering her hull. McSorley was forced to rely off reports from the United States Coast guard and the still functional radar of the Anderson to operate through the storm. By this point, McSorley knew his ship was in serious trouble and opted to head full steam towards the natural protection of Whitefish Bay to ride out the storm and protect his ship and crew from further damage.

By 6:00 PM, the storm had worsened and its likely the Fitzgerald was riding even lower in the water, due to much larger 35 foot high waves, heavier damage caused by the waves and an even larger amount of water in her hull the pumps seemed unable to cope with. By this point, McSorely was heard over the radio hollering at his crew to stay off the deck and remain inside the vessel. The battered ship despite the odds continued to soldier on towards Whitefish Bay. The Anderson wasn't in much better shape, its engine room leaking consistently and its superstructure often being submerged entirely under water every time a wave hit. Conditions reported by the late crewmember Ronald Roman, who was aboard the Anderson that night.

Cooper radioed the Fitzgerald at 7:10 PM uknown to him that it would be the final communication with McSorley. Cooper asked "How are you doing?" to which McSorely replied the infamous last words "We are holding our own." It was not long after that Fitzgerald vanished from the Anderson's radar. Cooper tried desperately to raise McSorley on the radio to no avail.

Cooper started to fear the worst and contacted the Coast Guard alerting them to the Ftizgerald's disappearance. Upon reaching Whitefish Bay, the Coast Guard requested that any freighter waiting out the storm in Whitefish Bay go out to search for the Fitzgerald and her 29 man crew as the Coast Guard itself was unable to reach the scene immediately. After enough persuasion, Cooper agreed to take the Anderson back out to sea followed by the Laker William Clay Ford. The search turned up no results for the first hour. After 10:00 PM, Cooper and his crew noticed large and small pieces of floating wreckage from the Fitzgerald which didn't make the situation any better.

By the morning of November 11, the Coast Guard had managed to arrive at the scene to assist in the search and rescue operation. What was eventually found only included destroyed remains of the ships two lifeboats, life preservers and items from the ship's galleys. The grisliest discovery was of a giant oil slick floating atop the lake's surface. It became apparent that the Fitzgerald had indeed sunk to the bottom taking with her all 29 crewmembers, many of whom were young adults less than 25 years of age. Further searches with sonar turned up what appeared to be a giant vessel on the bottom in two pieces the rough size of the Fitzgerald.

Not long after the search ended, years of arguments and disagreements over what could have caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to sink have clouded up any hope of truly understanding what occurred the night of November 10, 1975 as the shipping companies, government agencies and sea fairers of the Great Lakes all have different theories and opinions that do not match. Furthermore, any chance of using the wreck itself as a means of understanding what happened is next to impossible as the Canadian government has banned all diving operations period to the wreck since the recovery of the Fitzgerald's bell in 1993. it is likely that the world may never know the true ending of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The 1976 hit single "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by musician Gordon Lightfoot is the reason why the Edmund Fitzgerald is currently the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes.

Footnotes

Much of the information not commonly seen in other articles is courtesy of an interview with a tugboat captain on Lake Superior called "Tugboat Jim" who was close friends with a late crewmember of the Arthur M. Anderson crewmember Ronnie Roman, who was aboard the Anderson the night Fitzgerald sank.



Other information comes from an interview witn Captain Bernie Cooper shortly before his death in 1993. A real eye opening view from the man who was the last person to ever speak to the Edmund Fitzgerald's crew.




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