The 729-foot ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald, shown in 1972 file photo, sank with all its 29 crew perishing with it. Getty Images
The 729-foot ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald, shown in 1972 file photo, sank with all its 29 crew perishing with it.

It has inspired a song, a beer, and is the most commonly referenced Great Lakes shipwreck. Here’s the history behind the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. 

One moment, it was there. A blob on the radar screen, indicating the 729-foot freighter, Edmund Fitzgerald, was still sailing ahead. But in the next moment, it was gone. 

It was Nov. 10, 1975. The crew on the Arthur M. Anderson, itself a more than 700-foot Great Lakes freighter, had been trailing the Fitzgerald amid some of the stormiest seas Lake Superior could throw at them. But now, the Big Fitz was gone. 

What would follow would be a massive search for the Fitzgerald, a hit folk song by Gordon Lightfoot, and the most notable shipwreck in the history of the Great Lakes. 

The two ships left separate ports in Wisconsin with destinations on the other side of Michigan. Encountering strong winds and, eventually, heavy seas, the two ships traveled in near-constant communication. 

The Fitzgerald, known to some as the pride of the Great Lakes, was known for its speed during the shipping season. It had set and broken many shipping records. But now, the legendary boat was beaten and battered. Sailing southeast across Lake Superior after changing course in the northern portion of the lake, the ship was being tossed around by 35-foot waves. 

Eventually, the Fitzgerald’s radar went out. Making things worse, the beacon at the White Fish Point lighthouse also went out. The Fitzgerald was sailing blind in the worst storm it had ever encountered. It began relying on the Anderson to help it navigate the treacherous waters. 

At 3:30 p.m., Ernest McSorley, the captain of the Fitzgerald, radios Bernie Cooper, the skipper on the Anderson. The ship was taking on some water, but its pumps were going. 

At 7:10 p.m., McSorley again radioed the Anderson, eventually saying, “We’re holding our own.” Those were the last words heard from anyone aboard the Fitzgerald. 

When the Fitzgerald disappeared, ships docked at White Fish Point were asked to search for any sign of the vessel or its crew. Even the Anderson, itself beat up, was tasked with returning to where it last had radar sight of the Fitz. 

“I was reluctant, you know. I really was,” Cooper would later say in interviews. 

But with the nearest Coast Guard vessel on the far side of the laker, the Anderson obliged. But no sign of the Fitzgerald was found that night. 

What sank the Edmund Fitzgerald, taking with it the ship’s 29 crewmen, remains unclear. It might have split up, it may have capsized, it may have broken deep and taken on water, as the Gordon Lightfoot song goes. 

Some theories are more popular than others. Many speculate that the ship was overtaken by waves and pulled beneath the water. Others believe improperly fastened clamps on the ship’s hatch covers may have led to water entering its storage holds. 

The ship was eventually discovered beneath the lake, broken into two pieces. Its cargo was spilled across the lakebed. Its bell, called by some the “soul of a ship,” was recovered and replaced with a new one that included the names of each of its crew. 

The original bell can now be seen at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. 

The Fitzgerald is the most renowned Great Lakes shipwreck, but it’s not alone. More than 6,000 boats have gone down on the Great Lakes, taking with them over 30,000 lives, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. 

You can find out more about how to support the preservation of Great Lakes history and Great Lakes shipwreck history by visiting the museum website here: https://www.shipwreckmuseum.com/