The month of November is a time for remembrance with Veteran’s Day, but there is another early November date that resonates with me, thanks to Gordon Lightfoot.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a freighter on the Great Lakes, which sank in a Lake Superior storm on November 10, 1975, taking with her the entire crow of 29. She was the largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time, and she remains the largest to have sunk there.
The Edmund Fitzgerald carried set records for seasonal hauls of taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota to iron works in Great Lakes ports, often breaking her own previous record. Her Captain, Peter Pulcer, was known for piping music day or night over the ship’s intercom while passing through the St. Clair and Detroit between Lakes Huron and Erie and entertaining spectators at the Soo Locks between Lakes Superior and Huron with a running commentary about the ship.
Carrying a full cargo of ore pellets, she embarked on her ill-fated voyage from Superior, Wisconsin, on the afternoon of November 9, 1975. En route to Detroit, the Edmund Fitzgerald was caught in a mighty storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane force winds and waves up to 35 feet high. Shortly after 7:10 p.m., she suddenly sank in Canadian waters 530 feet deep, about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, a distance Edmund Fitzgerald could have covered in just over an hour at her top speed.
No distress signals were sent before she sank; her Captain’s last was, “We are holding our own.” Her crew of 29 perished, and no bodies were recovered. The exact cause of the sinking remains unknown, although it has been conjectured that the Edmund Fitzgerald may have been swamped, suffered structural failure or topside damage, run onto a shoal or suffered from a combination of these. Underwater exploration of the ship found no bodies, but the pellets of taconite ore are still visible in the hold.
The sinking led to changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices that included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard (the distance from the water line to the upper deck), and more frequent inspection of vessels.
Gordon Lightfoot’s song contains a few artistic omissions, errors and paraphrases, which Lightfoot has changed over the years. The words and the music convey the deep sense of tragedy.
Here is the song: