The Edmund Fitzgerald Anniversary Memorial Services & Why They Continue to Matter
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinking is the most recent to occur on Lake Superior — November 10, 1975.
Also, it was one of the most tragic incidents, affecting the lives of the family members and friends of all the 29 crewmen who were on the freighter. Edmund Fitzgerald anniversary ceremonies have been an important part of helping the families and friends find closure and remember their lost fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers.
A song, theatrical performances, documentaries, and books have been made to commemorate it as well. We’ve put together a comprehensive list of all these Edmund Fitzgerald memorial tributes.
A Special Consecration of the Wreckage Site of the Edmund Fitzgerald
One of the most significant Edmund Fitzgerald memorial services was held on July 17, 1999, to consecrate the wreckage site. The intent behind the ceremony was to give surviving loved ones the chance to say goodbye with some degree of privacy and to bless the gravesite.
Even though the consecration came 24 years after the tragedy, it helped many family members let go. A lot of families felt that dives to the wreckage was an intrusion and desecration of the grave, so the consecration was partially planned as a way to deter diving in the future.
The two-hour ceremony took place on the 290-foot U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw. Rev. Richard W. Ingalls of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit officiated the service, which was attended by more than 70 family members and more than 90 co-mourners. Even Gordon Lightfoot, the artist behind the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” song, was there.
During the service, select family members threw 29 red carnations into Lake Superior, representing each of the men who died in the shipwreck. Retired Coast Guard Captain James A. Wilson threw a wreath into the water to honor the many other Great Lakes victims.
Additionally, the ship’s bell rang 29 times, and D. Gregor MacGregor, a piper, played “Amazing Grace” and “Flowers of the Forest.” The attendees sang the American and Canadian national anthems too, honoring the fact that the wreckage rests in waters in both countries.
Annual Edmund Fitzgerald Anniversary Ceremonies
For decades, several places and organizations have held ceremonies on the Edmund Fitzgerald anniversary. Many of them honor the thousands of other lives that have been lost on the Great Lakes as well.
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Every Nov. 10, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) hosts an Edmund Fitzgerald anniversary memorial service at its museum in Whitefish Point. Whitefish Bay is where the Fitzgerald was heading for relative safety when it sank about 17 miles away.
The museum is the home of the ship’s bell, and the public can visit it on display. The organization was involved in the dives to recover the bell in 1995, and restored it after Michigan State University’s Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management cleaned it.
Usually, the anniversary ceremony starts at 7 p.m., which is around the time that the Fitzgerald disappeared. Anyone can attend, and admission is free. Even in 2020, the museum held a virtual service for the 45th anniversary despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The main highlight is the staff ringing the bell 29 times for each crew member. Sometimes, a surviving family member participates in ringing the bell. They ring the bell a 30th time to honor the thousands of others who have died on the Great Lakes.
Split Rock Lighthouse
In Two Harbors, Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) hosts an anniversary service and beacon lighting at Split Rock Lighthouse every Nov. 10. The group started this tradition in 1985, so it has been hosting this annual event for more than 35 years. It even provided a video stream of the ceremony in 2020 for the 45th anniversary.
The lighthouse beacon flashed each night every 10 seconds for nearly 60 years. Although the U.S. Coast Guard no longer uses it as a navigational aid, the MHS uses it for ceremonial purposes, such as for the Edmund Fitzgerald anniversary ceremony.
During the service, the lighthouse staff rings a bell 29 times while reading the names of the Fitzgerald crewmen. The bell rings a 30th time in remembrance of other lost mariners. Afterward, they turn on the Split Rock Lighthouse beacon, and you can see it for more than 20 miles across Lake Superior. It’s the only time that visitors can climb the tower while the beacon is lit after dark.
On top of that, costumed interpreters greet attendees and offer information about the historic site and Fitzgerald wreck. Visitors can watch a film in the visitor center too.
Mariners’ Church of Detroit
Rev. Ingalls, the same rector of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit who officiated the consecration of the wreckage site, was the first to hold an Edmund Fitzgerald memorial service. The ceremony occurred the day after the shipwreck, Nov. 11, 1975. The Reverend prayed for the 29 men’s families and rang the church bell for each of the men.
Every year, the Mariners’ Church of Detroit, which is more than 175 years old, continues to pray for the lost Fitzgerald crewmen and all the others who have died on the Great Lakes. It starts with singing the American and Canadian anthems, and the attendees sing hymns as well.
Also, the rector still rings the church bell 29 times. This tradition didn’t stop in 2020 for the 45th anniversary, which was streamed live for the first time on the church’s Facebook page.
Dossin Great Lakes Museum
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum, also in Detroit, hosts an Annual Lost Mariners Remembrance that honors all the lives lost on the Great Lakes. The service starts with a lantern vigil where the SS Edmund Fitzgerald lost its original bow anchor in 1974 in the Detroit River.
After that, the Honor Guard escorts a wreath to the river to be received by an Honor Flotilla of Great Lakes vessels. Attendees can watch the flotilla from the museum grounds.
The “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Song
One of the most famous Edmund Fitzgerald memorial tributes was the song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The song was written and sung by Gordon Lightfoot, who was inspired by a Newsweek article.
Although there’s no way he could have known exactly what happened on the ship, the song tells the story and has been a comfort to many of the surviving family members.
At seven verses and about 6.5 minutes long, it was a huge hit in Canada and the United States.
Theatrical Performances Honoring the Edmund Fitzgerald
There have been a couple of theatrical performances created as Edmund Fitzgerald memorial tributes.
Northern Michigan University Professor Shelley Russell wrote and directed “Holdin’ Our Own” in 2000. The play features several actors playing the roles of the 29 crewmen who passed away in the shipwreck.
Without getting too opinionated or political, it tells the story. It doesn’t favor any of the theories of how the freighter sank and ends in a way that allows the audience to decide what happened.
Written by Steven Dietz, “Ten November” is a musical turned into a theatrical production. The 90-minute play is a re-enactment of the Fitzgerald’s final voyage by nine men who take on 44 roles.
The scenes go back and forth between the sinking and aftermath, resembling flashbacks. It’s a wonderful commemoration of the wreck.
Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Documentaries
A few really good documentaries have been made about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. “Shipwreck: The Mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was made in 1995 and aired on the Discovery Channel. The 60-minute video features a dramatic re-enactment of what happened on the ship on Nov. 10, 1975. It includes live footage from a 1995 dive to the wreckage too.
Released in 2003, “Deep Sea Detectives: Death of The Edmund Fitzgerald” is a 45-minute examination of the shipwreck. It’s Season 1, Episode 4 of the History Vault series, and you can even watch it online. The documentary includes footage from the last dive to the wreckage.
“A Good Ship and Crew Well Seasoned: The Fitzgerald and Her Legacy” is a 2015 documentary by Allied Communications, Inc. and the National Museum of the Great Lakes. It was produced by the GLSHS and explores the overlooked history of the ship and crewmen before it was lost on Lake Superior, focusing on their accomplishments. At the same time, it reflects on the tragic loss and the impact the disaster had on surviving family members, friends, and maritime colleagues.
Books That Memorialize the Edmund Fitzgerald
Many books have been written as Edmund Fitzgerald memorial tributes, providing educational materials and remembering the lost crew members. Although there are numerous options on Amazon, two of them really stand out.
Great Lakes maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse wrote “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” He heard about the tragedy during a radio interview that fateful night and knew that it would be of significant interest to the public. His book was released in 1977 and one of the first to cover the wreck.
“Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was written by Michael Schumacher after being captivated by the famous Lightfoot song. Alongside his own research, he was involved in a small-budget documentary that provided a lot of insight so that he could write a full account of the story. The book was released in 2012.
Did we miss any Edmund Fitzgerald anniversary ceremonies or other tributes? Let us know in the comments!