What follows is based entirely on fact

Can you conceive of a Christening ceremony attended by over 15,000 people? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it; unimaginable; incredible; practically impossible? Yet there it is in the history books: it actually took place, on 7 June 1958 to be precise. Although, as was subsequently remembered, there was a bit of trouble at the time over the champagne, Edmund was indeed Christened that day.  

People often want to know how names are chosen. “Was that your Father’s name?” one sometimes hears, or “Is that a name which runs in the family?” In the case of Edmund, he was actually named after the President and Chairman of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is absolutely true!  

Having said that, being large at his birth and continuing large throughout his life, Edmund was sometimes spoken of by the use of nicknames - many of which made reference to his size - and, it has to be reported, often using the feminine pronoun. This was something, I am pleased to say, he never knew about or, if he did, he never showed any anger or resentment. It was just one of those things.  

Edmund lived in America at Duluth, Minnesota and at Detroit, Michigan but was often seen out and about elsewhere: he is certainly known to have visited Toledo in Ohio and the town of Superior in Wisconsin more than once.  

His best mate was a chap called Peter and he often rallied round when Edmund encountered any kind of minor mishap or difficulty, something which seemed to happen occasionally, particularly in a spate between 1969 and 1974. However, Peter was not around on the evening of 10 November, 1975.  

On that date, over seventeen years on from that memorable Christening, Edmund found himself alone in the middle of a vicious storm. Being some miles from home and safety, he was really struggling as the winds started gusting to over eighty miles an hour. Shortly after 7.10pm he disappeared.  

A search was instigated and actually took four days to find Edmund. He was eventually located not far from a bay near the border between America and Canada. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk in 530 feet of water with the loss of the entire crew of 29.  


Yes, Edmund was a ship. Actually she (I will henceforth use the feminine pronoun: all seagoing vessels being referred to thus) was a bulk carrying freighter on North America's Great Lakes.  

At her Christening and launch (where there really were over 15,000 people present) it took three attempts to break the champagne bottle. There was also a delay of over half an hour whilst the shipyard workers struggled to release the blocks under her keel.  When she did launch (sideways, as planned) the ship created a large wave which doused some of the spectators and she then crashed into a pier before righting herself. One man watching the launch had a heart attack and later died. I know not whether these occurrences were portents of the ship’s later doom but they certainly did not make for the most auspicious of starts.  

Her name was the Edmund Fitzgerald and she was certainly big: 729 feet long (more than an eighth of a mile), 75 feet in breadth and with a draft of 25 feet. The vertical height of her hull was 39 feet, whilst the inside height of the cargo hold was over 33 feet. She had a 26,000 ton capacity and was at the time the longest ship on the Great Lakes. Her three cargo holds, located in the centre of the ship, were loaded through 21 watertight hatches, each 11 feet by 48 feet and each covered by a seven ton sheet of 5/16th inch stiffened steel, secured when in transit by 68 clamps tightened manually. Originally coal-fired, her boilers were later converted to burn oil.

For 17 years, the Edmund Fitzgerald carried iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota to iron works in Detroit and to other Great Lakes ports, including Toledo and Superior. The vessel six times achieved seasonal haul records, often breaking her own previous record. She became known by a number of nicknames including "Toledo Express", "Pride of the American Side", "Fitz", "Mighty Fitz", "Big Fitz" and, perhaps somewhat worryingly, the "Titanic of the Great Lakes".

Her frequent Captain, particularly on those voyages when cargo records were set, was a Peter Pulcer. Captain Peter is best remembered for piping music over the ship's intercom system while passing through the St Clair and Detroit Rivers. Also, while navigating the Soo Locks (between lakes Superior and Huron) he would often come out from the bridge and use a megaphone to entertain spectators with a running commentary on details about the ship. Her size, record-breaking performances and Captain Peter’s “entertainment” endeared the Edmund Fitzgerald to many.

In 1969 the vessel ran aground and in 1970 she collided with another ship. Later that year she struck the side of a lock and repeated this ignominious feat in 1973 and once more in 1974. Also in 1974 she lost her original bow anchor in the Detroit River. However, none of these mishaps was considered serious or especially unusual.

So we come to her last hours.


At 2.15pm on 9 November, 1975 carrying a full cargo of taconite pellets (made of processed iron ore, heated and rolled into marble-size balls) with a Captain Ernest McSorley in command, the Edmund Fitzgerald embarked from the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No 1 at Superior, bound for a steel mill near Detroit. At around 5pm she joined a second giant ore carrier, the SS Arthur M Anderson, destined for Gary, Indiana. The two ships were in radio contact and the Edmund Fitzgerald, being the faster, took the lead, with the distance between the vessels ranging from 10 to 15 miles.


The weather forecast was not unusual for November in that part of the world; it predicted that a storm - described by the weather forecaster as “a typical November storm” - would pass just south of Lake Superior by 7am on the following day. However, at 7pm the forecast was changed, with gale warnings issued for the whole of Lake Superior. As a result, the two vessels altered course to the north in an attempt to seek some protection from the highlands along the Ontario shore but there, at 1am on 10 November, they encountered a winter storm with winds gusting to 60mph and waves 10 feet high. Visibility was reduced to two miles in the heavy rain. Captain McSorley reduced the ship’s speed because of the rough conditions.


At 2am that day the forecast was upgraded from gale force to storm force but around the middle of the day, as the storm centre passed right over the ships, the wind speeds temporarily dropped and the wind direction changed from northeast to south and then to northwest. After 1.50pm, however, wind speeds again increased rapidly and at 2.45pm it began to snow, again reducing visibility. The Arthur M. Anderson lost sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was by that time about 16 miles ahead.


Shortly after 3.30pm, Captain McSorley radioed the Arthur M. Anderson to report that the Edmund Fitzgerald was taking on water and had lost two vent covers and a railing. He also said that the vessel had developed a list to starboard and that bilge pumps were running continuously to discharge shipped water.


Shortly after 4.10pm, McSorley again called the Arthur M. Anderson, this time to report a radar failure - the radar masts had been disabled by the wind - and to ask the other ship to keep track. The Edmund Fitzgerald, now effectively blind, slowed further to let the Arthur M. Anderson come within a 10-mile range so she could provide radar guidance to the striken ship.


The Arthur M. Anderson tried to direct the Edmund Fitzgerald towards the relative safety of Whitefish Bay on the eastern end of Lake Superior. At 4.39 pm, McSorley contacted the Coastguard station to enquire inquire whether the lighthouse and radio beacon at Whitefish Point, at the entrance to the bay, were operational. The reply was that they thought the power lines had been blown down and that both were inactive so Captain McSorley hailed any ships in the Whitefish Point area asking them to report the state of the navigational aids. At 5pm the Edmund Fitzgerald was still 35 miles from Whitefish Point and by 5.30pm had received an answer from a Captain Cedric Woodard of the Swedish ship the Avafors to the effect that the Whitefish Point light was on but not the radio beacon. On the radio telephone, Captain Woodard overheard McSorley say "Don't allow anybody on deck" as well as something about a vent, which Woodard could not understand. McSorley contacted the Avafors again after this, saying "I have a 'bad list', I have lost both radars and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I have ever been in”.


By late in the afternoon, sustained winds of approaching 60 mph were recorded by ships and observation points across eastern Lake Superior. At 4.52pm the Arthur M. Anderson had logged sustained winds as high as 67 mph but by 6pm she was reporting gusts of up to 86 mph and waves of 25 feet, with some rogue waves reaching as high as 35 feet.


Morgan Clark, first mate of the Arthur M. Anderson, was watching the Edmund Fitzgerald on the radar set. He was endeavouring to calculate her distance from other vessels near Whitefish Point. However, he kept losing sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the radar because the seas were so high that they interfered with the radar reflection.


At 7.10pm Clark asked Captain McSorley “How are you making out with your problems?”. McSorley replied "We are holding our own".


This was the last ever transmission heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald. At around 7.15pm, the radar “pip” was lost again - as it had been when the seas had intervened - but this time it did not reappear. Clark called the Edmund Fitzgerald at about 7:22 pm but there was no answer.


The Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk in 530 feet of water about 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. No distress signals had been sent.


To this day, the exact cause of the sinking remains unknown, although there is speculation that a structural disintegration broke apart the vessel on the surface, possibly as the bow pitched down, sending the cargo rushing forward.


A subsequent intensive search recovered one severely damaged lifeboat, half of another badly damaged lifeboat (both seemingly torn from the ship’s body), two inflatable life rafts, 21 lifejackets or lifejacket pieces and some miscellaneous flotsam.

The Edmund Fitzgerald’s complete crew of had 29 perished. No bodies were ever recovered.  


You may like to listen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vST6hVRj2A to the Gordon Lightfoot song, “The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.


The Department of Transport report on the disaster can be read in full here https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Portals/9/DCO%20Documents/5p/CG-5PC/INV/docs/boards/edmundfitz.pdf


© Richard Farquharson, Haddenham, Cambridgeshire November 2020 (for the forty-fifth anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald)