The Story of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

By Lisa Hayes

August 1, 2023

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

It was Nov. 10, 1975. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was known for its speed, having set and broken many shipping records. But on this day, the boat was battling strong winds and heavy seas that had already sent nearly every other ship home. Faced with 35-foot waves, the Fitz’s captain, Ernest McSorley, stayed in constant communication with the crew of the Arthur M. Anderson—another large freighter that was sticking close under the very real idea that, on the Great Lakes, there was safety in numbers.

Both ships had left Wisconsin ports, Michigan-bound, and were sailing southeast across Lake Superior. Eventually, the Fitzgerald’s radar went out. Then, the beacon at the Whitefish Point lighthouse also went out.

At 3:30 p.m., McSorley radioed the Anderson to say his ship was taking on water, but the pumps were going. At 7:10 p.m., McSorley radioed, “We’re holding our own.” Those were the last words heard from anyone aboard the Fitzgerald.

Later that month, the US Navy and Coast Guard found the ship under 535 feet of water, northwest of Whitefish Point. The next year, in 1976, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle photographed the wreckage—the ship had broken into two pieces. In the same year, Gordon Lightfoot made the ship immortal with his haunting song.

Since McSorley had never called for help and the Fitzgerald’s lifeboats were found badly damaged but still secured, the Coast Guard determined that the ship must have sunk abruptly.

While there’s a theory that the Fitzgerald folded in half while still on the surface of the lake—each end riding the crest of competing waves—the Coast Guard’s report says otherwise. Its nose diving into a wave, the ship likely lost buoyancy and plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior “in seconds,” according to NOAA. “As the heavy cargo shifted forward quickly…the bow of the ship hit the bottom with such force that the vessel snapped in two.”

On July 4, 1995, the Edmund Fitzgerald’s 200-pound bell, called by some the “soul of a ship,” was recovered. Later that year—on the 20th anniversary of the wreck—it was presented to the relatives of the 29 lost crew members, and rung 30 times—once for each member of the crew and a final time in honor of all those who have lost their lives at sea. The bell can be seen today at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Michigan.

READ: The odd events that happened during the 1958 launch of the Edmund Fitzgerald. WATCH: The last interview ever conducted with the captain of the Arthur M. Anderson, who talked about the fateful night in 1975. LISTEN: The last radio recordings from the Edmund Fitzgerald.
This story was adapted in part from Joey Oliver’s 2021 story, also published here on The ‘Gander: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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