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13 Things You Didn’t Know About the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

As the most recent shipwreck to occur on Lake Superior, the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald is still a fresh incident for some people. It happened on Nov. 10, 1975, taking the lives of 29 husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers.

While you may have heard about the disaster, there might be many details about the ship and wreck that you don’t know. We’ve put together a list of 13 interesting details.

1. It Was Owned by an Insurance Company & Named After Its President

The Edmund Fitzgerald was an investment by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee. It was the first time that an American life insurance firm commissioned the build of a freighter.

The ship was constructed by Great Lakes Engineering Works and chartered as the flagship of Oglebay Norton Corporation’s Columbia Transportation Division for 25 years.

Along with being owned by an insurance company, the Fitzgerald was named after the company’s president and chairman of the board. His interest in freighters came from his grandfather, who was a lake captain and the owner of Milwaukee Drydock Company.

Despite its official name, the Fitzgerald had multiple nicknames, such as Queen of the Lakes and Mighty Fitz.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company Of Milwaukee - 13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee | photo via @rachel_dickman_photography

2. There Were a Few Mishaps During the Christening

The launch and christening ceremony for the Fitzgerald was held on June 7, 1958. Although more than 15,000 people attended, there were a few hitches. 

  • It took Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the president’s wife, three attempts to break the champagne bottle over the ship’s bow.
  • It took 36 minutes for the shipyard crew to release the keel blocks, which delayed the release.
  • When the ship launched, it was sideways and created a wave that drenched the attendees. Then, it crashed into the pier.
  • An attendee had a heart attack during the event and passed away later.

3. The Edmund Fitzgerald Had a Luxurious Interior

Compared to what was standard when the Fitzgerald was built, the interior was pretty luxurious. The bathrooms were tiled, the floors had deep pile carpet, the portholes had drapes, and the swivel chairs had leather upholstery.

Also, the crew’s quarters had air conditioning, there were two dining rooms with a large galley and fully stocked pantry, and the pilothouse had advanced nautical equipment and a lovely map room.

On top of that, the freighter had two guest staterooms, mainly for company guests. The guests were treated to one candlelight dinner with the captain and mess-jacketed stewards — Robert Rafferty and Allen Kalmon. It was a truly VIP experience with excellent food.

S.s. Edmund Fitzgerald Anchor, Detroit - 13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Anchor | photo via @zeraxphotography

4. The Ship Was Involved in Several Incidents During Its Career

Over the course of its career, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was involved in several collisions:

  • The first one was in September 1969 when it ran aground near the Soo Locks.
  • The following year, it crashed into the SS Hochelaga.
  • After that, it hit a wall in the Soo Locks three separate times.
  • In January 1974, the ship’s bow anchor was lost in the Detroit River.

None of these incidents were considered serious or unusual.

5. The Edmund Fitzgerald Never Sent a Distress Signal

At 7:10 p.m. on Nov. 10, Captain Jesse B. Cooper of the SS Arthur M. Anderson, which was sailing with the Fitzgerald, asked Captain Ernest M. McSorley about the ship and crew. McSorley responded, “We are holding our own.”

Just 10 minutes later, Cooper couldn’t get in touch with McSorley or see the Fitzgerald on the radar. There was never a distress signal; the ship just disappeared.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum - M-123 Tahquamenon Scenic Byway, 13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald boat | photo via @great_smitten_adventures

6. It Took FOUR DAYS to Find the Ship in Lake Superior

By the time the Fitzgerald was declared missing, it was just after 9 p.m. The U.S. Coast Guard asked Captain Cooper to go back to the area to look for survivors because it didn’t have suitable vessels for a search and rescue effort. He only found some debris and lifeboats.

At around 10:30 p.m. or shortly after, the Coast Guard asked all anchored commercial vessels nearby for assistance, but only the SS William Clay Ford was able to respond. The agency sent an HU-16 fixed-wing search aircraft from Traverse City, which arrived at about 10:53 p.m.

By 1 a.m. on Nov. 11, an HH-52 helicopter arrived with a high-powered searchlight. Additionally, the Coast Guard sent the Woodrush buoy tender, but it was anchored in Duluth and took a day to get there.

The Canadian Coast Guard assisted with the search too. Then on Nov. 14 — the fourth day — the wreckage was discovered by a U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion. It used the same equipment that submarines use to identify magnetic anomalies.

The Fitzgerald was resting about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay at 530 feet under the surface.

In 1994, Sport diver Fred Shannon coordinated multiple dives and, with a submersible vessel, it found that at least 33% of the wreckage was located in U.S. waters and the rest in Canadian waters.

7. Experts Still Don’t Have a Definitive Explanation for the Shipwreck

On the night of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the weather and sea conditions were severe. While these factors played a role in the shipwreck, experts could never definitively explain what happened.

They’ve only been able to theorize the cause — flooding in the hold, a failed hull, rogue waves, and topside damage. Captain Cooper has a theory about what happened, and you can listen to it here.

8. Weather Forecasts and Navigational Charts Were Inaccurate

In 1975, weather forecasts and navigational charts weren’t as accurate as they are today. That could have contributed to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald’s shipwreck.

Inaccurate Weather Forecasts

Captains McSorley and Cooper chose their route based on the National Weather Service’s weather forecast, which was that a storm would pass south of Lake Superior by 7 a.m. After they were already en route, the NWS changed the forecast to gale warnings for the entire lake.

However, a winter storm developed at 1 a.m., forcing McSorley and Cooper to change course. It wasn’t until an hour later that the NWS changed the forecast again to a storm with strong winds. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., the Coast Guard warned all ships to seek safe anchorage and advised that the Soo Locks would be closed.

In 2005, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the NWS ran a computer simulation of the weather and wave conditions where the Fitzgerald sank. It discovered that the wind gusts got up to 86 mph and that the waves were up to 46 feet high.

Inaccurate Navigational Charts

One causal theory for the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck is that it ran aground on the Six Fathom Shoal northwest of Caribou Island. If that’s the case, inaccurate navigational charts could be the reason.

A 1976 survey of the area where the Fitzgerald sailed through found that the shoal actually extends 1 mile farther out than is shown on the Canadian navigational chart that McSorley and Cooper used.

Navigational Chart - 13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
Navigational Chart | photo via @red.handed

9. The Load Capacity Was Increased Beyond Its Design

Over its 17-year career, the Fitzgerald set six haul load records — the heaviest of which was 27,402 long tons of taconite ore in 1969. When the ship sank, it was carrying 26,116 long tons. However, these loads were more than the freighter was originally designed to transport.

The U.S. Coast Guard had increased the load line three times — 1969, 1971, and 1973. So by regulation, the ship could carry 4,000 tons more than it should. The heavier cargo meant that it had less freeboard and buoyancy to face the treacherous wave conditions on Nov. 10.

After the wreckage, the Coast Guard removed the regulation that allowed the reduced freeboard.

10. The Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck Prompted Regulation Changes

Including removing the freeboard reduction amendment, the Coast Guard implemented eight regulation changes after the Fitzgerald tragedy. All of the changes are an effort to improve safety and include:

  • Equipping heavy vessels with depth finders
  • Installing GPS
  • Putting survival suits in all of the crew’s quarters and work stations
  • Using more detailed and precise navigational charts

11. The Edmund Fitzgerald’s Bell Was Retrieved & You Can Visit It

The surviving family members of the 29 men who were lost in the SS Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck requested that the bell be retrieved from the wreckage so that they could have some sense of closure.

In 1995, Joseph B. MacInnis coordinated several dives with assistance from the Canadian Navy, Chippewa Tribe, National Geographic Society, and Sony. The divers used a Phil Nuytten atmospheric diving suit to retrieve the bell. The suit was used to set up a replica bell and put a beer can in the pilothouse as well.

The recovered Fitzgerald bell was put in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Michigan State University’s Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management performed an initial cleaning on the bell. Then, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society continued the restoration.

The bell is used as the centerpiece for an annual memorial ceremony for the lost crew. From mid-May to mid-October, you can visit the museum to see the memorial bell display.

S.s. Edmund Fitzgerald Bell, Whitefish Point - 13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald bell | photo via @great_smitten_adventures

12. “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Is a Tribute to the Ship

The Fitzgerald bell isn’t the only memorial to the tragic shipwreck. Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote and released “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in 1976. He was inspired to write the song after reading an article about the wreck.

With seven verses, it was a huge success, hitting No. 1 on the weekly charts in Canada and the U.S. Cash Box Top 100.

Gordon Lightfoot Record - 13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
Gordon Lightfoot record | photo via @sjleone07

13. Only 2 People Are Known to Have Touched the Shipwreck

In 1995, Mike Zee and Terrence Tysall became the only two people known to have touched the Fitzgerald wreckage. Also, the pair set a record for diving the 530 feet to the bottom of Lake Superior without a submersible vessel — they used trimix gas instead.

Now, wreckage surveys of any kind are not allowed without a proper license under the Ontario Heritage Act. Violations can incur fines up to $1 million Canadian.

Do you have more interesting facts about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald? Let us know in the comments below.

14. The Edmund Fitzgerald Infographic

13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

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