More than 240 ships have been lost in Lake Superior around the Whitefish Point area — a tiny fraction of the estimated thousands of Great Lakes shipwrecks over the last 150 years. But the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank with a crew of 29 on November 10, 1975, is the most famous Great Lakes shipwreck.
Nearly 50 years after her final voyage and the mysterious circumstances surrounding its sinking into stormy Lake Superior waters, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald still holds a special place in Great Lakes lore.
Referred to as the “Titanic of the Great Lakes” in some circles, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald shares a certain kinship with the famous British ocean liner that sank in 1912:
- Both were lost at sea,
- Both were made famous in artistic works, and
- Both have spawned cottage industries.
While the story of the Titanic was a billion-dollar box office hit, the Edmund Fitzgerald became famous on a smaller scale.
Memorialized in songs, books, plays, and musicals, the vessel’s place in Great Lakes lore has created a cottage industry where people of all ages visit museums to learn its history and see its artifacts.
“The Titanic of the Great Lakes”
When the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald launched in June 1958, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes and remains the largest ship lost in those waters. As the biggest ship of its kind, it was considered luxurious compared to the standard of the time, with a grand interior, air-conditioned quarters, and two dining rooms.
“When she was launched, at 729 feet, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes and was very advanced in terms of technology, and she held that title during a critical period of shipping on the Great Lakes,” said Sean Ley, Development Officer for the Great Lakes Historical Society.
For over a decade, the Edmund Fitzgerald developed a reputation as a workhorse, hauling iron ore to various Great Lakes ports. It became popular with boat watchers in part because Captain Peter Pulcer was known for playing music over the ship’s intercom.
The ship was involved in several incidents during its career, including a collision with another vessel in 1970. But its final voyage in November 1975 would place the Edmund Fitzgerald in the annals of history.
The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald’s Final Voyage
The famed freighter started on its final voyage on November 9, 1975, under the command of Capt. Ernest McSorley. Taking off from Superior, Wisconsin, the ship was bound for Zug Island, near Detroit, with a 26,000-ton load of iron ore.
During the night of November 9, the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for all of Lake Superior. The gale eventually turned into a winter storm.
As the storm’s intensity grew, the S.S. Anderson, which was traveling with the Edmund Fitzgerald, was asked to track the Fitzgerald around 4 p.m. on November 10 after McSorley reported a radar failure. The Fitzgerald was directed toward Whitefish Point for safety.
At 7:10 p.m., Anderson Captain Jesse Cooper radioed McSorley, who replied, “We are holding our own.” Ten minutes later, Cooper could no longer reach the ship via radio or detect it on radar, but the Fitzgerald never sent a distress signal.
The ship was discovered four days later, approximately 17 miles from Whitefish Point. In May 1976, the U.S. Navy found it in 530 feet of water, split in two.
While rough seas and stormy weather factored into the ship’s disappearance, many theories have emerged over time, with cargo hold flooding, rogue waves, and topside damage as possible reasons for its sinking.
“There are so many theories out there and some of them are completely ridiculous,” Ley said. “But that’s part of the mystery; we’ll never really know how it sank.”
An Ode to the “Mighty Fitz”
Two weeks after the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald’s final voyage, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot learned of the tragedy in a small Newsweek article.
Lightfoot, who penned many top 40 hits during a recording career that spanned more than six decades, ultimately wrote “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a 6-minute, 30-second ode to the freighter that was released in August 1976 and launched the ship into popular culture.
Over the years, Lightfoot often referred to the song as his greatest work.
“The story of the sinking of the Fitzgerald stayed with me in a funny kind of a way, all by itself,” Lightfoot told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2015. “I wasn’t forgetting about it. I knew everyone had forgotten about it, but I knew I hadn’t forgotten it.”
Lightfoot died at age 84 in May, but the song endures as a classic rock radio staple. Upon its release, it became a No. 1 hit in Canada and also reached No. 1 on Cashbox and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States.
The Edmund Fitzgerald’s Enduring Legacy
Each year, thousands of visitors travel to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at the Whitefish Point Light Station near Paradise, Michigan.
More than 200 ships have wrecked near the light station — the oldest active light on Lake Superior — but the Edmund Fitzgerald is the one that draws the most interest.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS), which owns and operates the museum, announced plans to build a museum wing dedicated to the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1995 and participated in the salvaging of the ship’s bronze bell from Lake Superior’s depths that same year.
“The raising of the bell was an event because the families (of the crew) wanted the bell as a memorial,” Ley said. “It’s the first thing you see when you enter the museum.”
Along with Lightfoot’s song, the ship has received several tributes through the years, including a musical, two plays, at least a dozen books, and a piano concerto, in addition to being commemorated on a Canadian collector coin in 2015.
History buffs and curious minds alike can visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit, and the Steamship Valley Camp Museum in Sault Ste Marie to see artifacts from the ship, including the bell, an anchor, and lifeboat, and buy souvenirs related to the ship.
Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald and Crew
- The GLSHS hosts a ceremony for the ship at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum each November. Information about the 48th Anniversary Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Event is available here – the November 10 in-person event is closed to the public but a live stream will be available online at 7pm ET.
- The Minnesota Historical Society at Split Rock Lighthouse holds an annual beacon lighting ceremony to commemorate the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and offer visitors a chance to reflect on all lives lost on the Great Lakes. Events include a guided tour exploring the ship’s final voyage, the tolling of a ship’s bell, and the lighting of a beacon. The site will be open from 10am – 6pm CT on Friday, November 10, 2023.
- The Mariners’ Church in Detroit held an annual bell tolling for each life lost on the ship for many years and continues to hold a memorial ceremony, which honors all lives lost on the Great Lakes. The day after Gordon Lightfoot’s death, the church bell rang 30 times to honor the singer and his contribution to keeping the Fitzgerald’s memory alive. They will be holding The Great Lakes Memorial Service at 11am ET on November 12.
- For more than 20 years, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit has held a Lost Mariners Remembrance on the anniversary of the sinking, including a lantern vigil at the ship’s anchor. This year’s memorial event will take place from 6pm – 8pm ET on November 10, 2023. A live stream will be available on the museum’s Facebook page for those unable to attend in-person.