If you live in the Midwest, you’ve likely heard of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in November 1975 in Lake Superior, a tragedy that took 29 lives. Other than that, you might not know much more about the ship itself or the crew.
For instance, do you know the interesting circumstances of its christening? Did you know that the freighter had a few mishaps during its operation?
We’ve put together a plethora of details about the Edmund Fitzgerald ship and its crew for you.
The Construction & Layout of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The construction of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a milestone. An investment was made by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, the first of its kind by an American life insurance firm. The company contracted Great Lakes Engineering Works for the ship’s construction in 1957, and the first keep plate was laid on Aug. 7.
The Overall Design
The instruction was for the Fitzgerald to be within a foot of the maximum allowed length for passage through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which was due to be completed. Because of that, the Fitzgerald was the largest ship to traverse the Great Lakes at 729 feet long, until the SS Murray Bay was built at 730 feet long two years later.
Valued at $7 million, the Fitzgerald had a 25-foot draft, rose 39 feet high and had a breadth of 75 feet. Without cargo, it weighed an amazing 13,632 tons. The ship had three central cargo holds, which were loaded through 21 hatches.
These were ideal for the freighter’s job of transporting taconite iron ore between the mines near Duluth, Minnesota, and the iron works at Great Lakes ports, such as Detroit and Toledo. Year after year, it set records for carrying more freight than other ships.
The power to move those loads came from a Westinghouse Electric Corporation engine. The boilers were originally coal fired, but during the winter of 1971-72, they were converted to oil burning. In 1969, a diesel-powered bow thruster was installed to improve maneuverability.
The Interior Design
Inside of the Fitzgerald were luxurious designs by J.L. Hudson Company, such as tiled bathrooms, deep pile carpet, leather swivel chairs, and porthole drapes. Air conditioning was extended into the crew quarters, two dining rooms were supplied by a fully stocked pantry and large galley, and the pilothouse featured a lovely map room and advanced nautical equipment.
Additionally, two guest staterooms were available for passengers. They were typically company guests who were treated to a VIP routine that consisted of excellent food.
According to maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse, the lounge always had snacks and the kitchenette always had drinks. The captain would arrange a candlelight dinner once each trip with mess-jacketed stewards and a special punch to drink.
The Fitzgerald’s Naming & Christening
The name of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald came from the president and chairman of the board at Northwestern Mutual. His grandfather was a lake captain and owned the Milwaukee Drydock Company, which constructed and repaired ships. That’s where his interest in freighters came from.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was known by many nicknames — Fitz, Big Fitz, Mighty Fitz, Toledo Express, Pride of the American Side, Titanic of the Great Lakes, and Queen of the Lakes.
The christening and launch ceremony was held on June 7, 1958, and was attended by more than 15,000 people. However, the event didn’t go as smoothly as anyone hoped.
First, it took three attempts for Fitzgerald’s wife Elizabeth to smash a champagne bottle over the bow. Then, the shipyard crew had a difficult time releasing the keel blocks, which delayed the launch by 36 minutes. Third, the sideways launch created a big enough wave to drench the attendees before crashing into a pier.
Others who attended said that the ship looked like it was trying to climb out of the water. Finally, one of the men attending the event had a heart attack and died later.
History & Typical Routes of the SS Fitzgerald
After the naming and christening, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald underwent nine days of sea trials to ensure its seaworthiness. These were completed on Sept. 22, 1958, and the ship took its first voyage two days later. Northwestern Mutual signed a 25-year contract that permanently chartered the freighter to Oglebay Norton Corporation, which made the ship its Columbia Transportation fleet flagship.
For 17 years, the Fitzgerald was a workhorse that often beat its own milestones in regard to load weight. Setting six seasonal haul records, the record load was in 1969 for 27,402 long tons in a single trip. It took about 4.5 hours to load the taconite pellets and about 14 hours to unload the haul.
The typical route for the Fitzgerald was between Superior, Wisconsin, and Toledo, Ohio. Despite that, the destination port could vary. For instance, it traveled between Superior, Wisconsin, and Detroit, Michigan, an average of 47 times per season, and this round trip usually took five days. By Nov. 1975, the freighter had logged about 748 round trips on the Great Lakes, covering more than 1 million miles — the same as 44 trips around the globe.
Throughout its career, the Fitzgerald became a favorite of onlookers because of its size and the music of Captain Peter Pulcer. He would play tunes over the intercom system day or night while passing through the Detroit River and St. Clair River. While going through the Soo Locks, Pulcer would entertain visitors with commentary about the ship via his bullhorn.
Collisions During Operation & the Final Voyage
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald received a safety award in 1969 for operating for eight years without a worker injury that resulted in time off. However, the freighter ran into a few collisions during its operation:
- September 1969 — ran aground near the Soo Locks, causing external and internal damage
- April 1970 — collided with SS Hochelaga
- September 1970 — hit a lock wall, sustaining more damage
- 1973 — hit a lock wall
- January 1974 — lost the bow anchor in the Detroit River near Belle Isle
- 1974 — hit a lock wall
Despite these incidents, none of them were considered unusual or serious. The Fitzgerald was expected to have a long career going forward because freshwater ships are built to transport hauls for more than 500 years. Mother Nature, or perhaps fate, had a different plan, though.
On Nov. 10, 1975, the ship was involved in an incident that ended its career, sinking it 530 feet underwater to the bottom of Lake Superior. It was carrying 26,116 long tons of taconite pellets from Superior, Wisconsin, to Zug Island near Detroit.
The trip occurred near the end of the shipping season, around the time when the weather could become risky. The crew wasn’t worried because the sheer size and advanced technology of the freighter were more than a match. Unfortunately, none of them returned home, and exactly what happened to cause the tragedy remains a mystery.
Remembering the SS Edmund Fitzgerald Crew
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald crew members were brothers, husbands, fathers, and sons mostly from Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The tragic sinking of the ship affected dozens of families and comrades alike, but they haven’t been and will never be forgotten.
Below is a list of the Edmund Fitzgerald crew members and some details that we’ve unearthed from various interviews:
- Ernest McSorley — Captain born in 1912 in Canada and lived in Toledo, Ohio. He started command of the Fitzgerald in 1972 with more than 40 years of experience navigating oceans and the Great Lakes. McSorley was highly regarded for his skills, especially in heavy weather. He intended to retire after the 1975 shipping season but was survived by wife Nellie Pollock.
- John McCarthy — First mate born in 1913 and lived in Bay Village, Ohio.
- James Pratt — Second mate born in 1931 and lived in Lakewood, Ohio.
- Michael Armagost — Third mate born in 1938 and lived in Iron River, Wisconsin.
- David Weiss — Cadet born in 1953 and lived in Agoura, California.
- Ransom Cundy — Watchman born in 1922 on Easter Sunday in Houghton, Michigan, and lived in Superior, Wisconsin. He was in the Marine Corp and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima during WWII. Fortunate to survive, Cundy was awarded several commendations and medals for his service. He was sailing with his friend Frederick J. Beetcher at the time of the sinking. Cundy was survived by his daughter Cheryl, her husband, and their seven children as well as three grandchildren from his youngest daughter Janice who passed away in 1974.
- Karl Peckol — Watchman born in 1955 and lived in Ashtabula, Ohio.
- William Spengler — Watchman born in 1916 and lived in Toledo, Ohio.
- John Simmons — Senior wheelman born in 1913 in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he also lived. He was known as a storyteller, jokester, and pool shark, and he loved sailing. Friends with Captain McSorley for more than 30 years, the ill-fated Fitzgerald trip was going to be his last before retirement. Simmons was survived by wife Florence (who never dated or remarried after his death) and two daughters Mary and Patricia.
- Eugene O’Brien — Wheelman born in 1925 in Minnesota and lived in Toledo, Ohio. Nicknamed the “Great Lakes Gambler,” he worked on ships from age 16 and only took a four-year hiatus as a glass factory worker. He loved casinos and playing cards. O’Brien was survived by wife Nancy and son John, who was just 17 when he lost his father.
- John Poviach — Wheelman born in 1916 and lived in Bradenton, Florida.
- Paul Riippa — Deckhand born in 1953 and lived in Ashtabula, Ohio.
- Mark Thomas — Deckhand born in 1954 and lived in Richmond Heights, Ohio.
- Bruce Hudson — Deckhand born in 1953 and lived in North Olmsted, Ohio.
- George Holl — Chief engineer born in 1915 and lived in Cabot, Pennsylvania.
- Edward Bindon — First assistant engineer born in 1928 and lived in Fairport Harbor, Ohio.
- Thomas Edwards — Second assistant engineer born in 1925 and lived in Oregon, Ohio.
- Russell Haskell — Second assistant engineer born in 1935 and lived in Millbury, Ohio.
- Oliver Champeau — Third assistant engineer born in 1934 and lived in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Nicknamed “Buck,” he quit school at age 13 to raise four siblings after his father died. During his life, Champeau fought in the Korean War with the Marine Corps.
- Ralph Walton — Oiler born in 1917 and lived in Fremont, Ohio. He and his brother Wade sailed on many Columbia Transportation ships, including the Fitzgerald, but only he was on board when it sank. He often volunteered to maintain the ships during winter and gave his nephews tours of the vessels. Walton was survived by a wife and son Alan who worked on freighters too.
- Blaine Wilhelm — Oiler born in 1923 in Big Bay, Michigan, and lived in Moquah, Wisconsin. He was in the Navy for 11 years, serving in WWII and the Korean War before being discharged as a first class fireman. Afterward, Wilhelm sailed for 19 years. He liked to go fishing and deer hunting and enjoyed playing pool, barbecuing, spending time with family and friends, and eating blueberry pie. Wilhelm was survived by wife Lorraine, seven children, and a grandchild born just four days after the Fitzgerald sank.
- Thomas Bentsen — Oiler born in 1952 and lived in St. Joseph, Michigan.
- Gordon MacLellan — Wiper born in 1945 and lived in Clearwater, Florida. Less than one month before the tragic Fitzgerald journey, he built a home in Presque Isle, Michigan, to make travel between the two states easier. MacLellan took after his father, Master Captain Donald MacLellan who traveled the Great Lakes route several times.
- Robert Rafferty — Steward and cook born in 1913 in Toledo, Ohio, where he also lived. After 30 years of sailing, he started just filling in for crew members. Rafferty wasn’t supposed to be on the fateful journey but was called to fill in for the regular steward. He was actually considering retiring altogether. Rafferty was survived by wife Brooksie, daughter Pam, and several grandchildren.
- Allen Kalmon — Second cook born in 1932 and lived in Washburn, Wisconsin.
- Joseph Mazes — Special maintenance man born in 1916 in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he also lived. He sailed for 30 years on the Great Lakes and loved his job. At one point, he saved another crewman’s life. Sadly, the 1975 season would have been his last because he planned to retire. Mazes loved ice fishing, deer hunting, and snowmobiling in his free time. His siblings, nieces, and nephews remember how kind and generous he was. They recall him being afraid of Captain McSorley’s habit of never pulling out of a storm.
- Thomas Borgeson — Maintenance man born in 1934 and lived in Duluth, Minnesota.
- Frederick Beetcher — Porter born in 1919 and lived in Superior, Wisconsin.
- Nolan Church — Porter born in 1920 and lived in Silver Bay, Minnesota. He didn’t start sailing until his 40s after watching the freighters pass by his home and thinking that the job would be fun. He was survived by multiple children who say that he loved the job. Son Rick recalls his father joking that the Great Lakes didn’t have a hole big enough for the Fitzgerald. Church didn’t think that such a tragedy could happen.
Did we miss any details about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald? Are you a surviving family member or descendant of the lost crew? We would love to hear from you!