From news to legend
Nov. 14, 2016
by Ivan Raconteur

It’s difficult to explain the impact of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald to those who were not around when it went down.

Last week, on the 41st anniversary of its sinking, there were the usual news reports marking the anniversary of the event. A friend posted Gordon Lightfoot’s song about the wreck on Facebook. As so often happens, these things reminded me the sinking of the Fitzgerald was more than a news story to us.

The Fitz went down during a particularly rough storm on Lake Superior Nov. 10, 1975.

It had special significance to those of us who lived along the shore of the big lake. We grew up with Lake Superior weather, and we had seen her in all her moods. It did not take much imagination for us to picture what it would be like to be on a boat out on the lake during the gales of November. There’s nowhere to go for safety, and no one can help you when conditions turn bad, the way they can so quickly on the lake.

Growing up in an international port like Duluth gives one a special perspective. We knew the boats that worked the lakes because we saw them coming and going, year after year.

The Fitzgerald was a popular visitor and a familiar sight to those who watched the port.

Launched in 1958, the Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the lakes at the time, and had a capacity of 26,000 tons. She set records for the largest season-hauls on the lakes.

Hearing about the disappearance and sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was like an adventure story come to life for those of us who grew up near Lake Superior.

We had read countless stories about life on the lakes, the lighthouses that served them, and the shipwrecks that had been documented over the years.

The Fitzgerald’s story was not part of the past; it was unfolding live in front of us in the newspapers and on TV.

We had seen her many times navigating the ship canal on her way out onto the lake, and it was hard to believe she had made her last journey.

The Fitz left Superior, WI Nov. 9. The trouble began the afternoon of Nov. 10.

We learned that the Fitzgerald’s Captain Ernest McSorely reported problems around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon in a radio message to the S.S. Arthur Anderson: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me ‘till I get to Whitefish?”

We all knew that Whitefish Point was on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If the Fitzgerald could have rounded the point and made it into Whitefish Bay, she would have gained some relief from the beating she was taking from the gale blowing down the lake.

The Fitzgerald was by no means the first vessel to end her career in that vicinity. Approximately 240 ships have sunk in the Whitefish Point area since the first recorded sinking in 1816.

We were also familiar with the Anderson, which is still working the lakes.

McSorely’s last message to the Anderson’s Captain Jesse B. Cooper, at about 7:10 p.m., was “We are holding our own.”

Soon after that, the Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar, and attempts to contact the Fitz were unsuccessful.

None of the 29 men aboard the Fitzgerald survived, and no bodies were recovered.

The Anderson reached the shelter of Whitefish Bay, but the Coast Guard asked Cooper to reverse course and head back out onto the lake to search for survivors.

Despite the gale force winds and waves in excess of 35 feet, Cooper agreed to do so.

The Anderson, along with some other vessels that had been riding out the storm on Whitefish Bay, searched the area where the Fitzgerald had last been seen.

Apart from some severely damaged lifeboats and other debris, they found no sign of the ship or its crew.

The wreck of the Fitzgerald was later discovered in 530 feet of water about 15 miles from Whitefish Bay.

The ship’s bell was later recovered, and is now on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point.

I have visited the museum, and it was an eerie feeling to see the bell and remember those days decades ago when the story of the Fitzgerald’s fate was unfolding in front of us.

I am also reminded of the Fitzgerald every time I see the Anderson on the lake, since the Anderson was the last vessel to see and communicate with the Fitzgerald.

The Anderson has undergone several renovations since 1975, but it still reminds me of that stormy November and those desperate messages between ships making their way across the lake on that dark day.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was one of those stories that passed from news to legend almost before the ink dried on the pages of the newspapers.

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