The Society recently acquired five prints and color slides of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald shortly before it sank in Lake Superior taking the lives of all aboard in a terrible storm. These color slides were shot by vacationing tourists, Jerry and Marilyn Sexton, as the ship passed through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan in late July of 1975. The sharp and poignant images record the lives and activities of a ship soon to vanish.
At 729 feet, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time of its christening in 1958. It was built by Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, Michigan and owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. Distinguished for having set a number of cargo records over the years, the ship was also well known to both casual and serious ship watchers.
The final voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald began November 9, 1975, when it left Superior, Wisconsin loaded with iron ore. Captain Ernest M. McSorley and his crew of 28 were soon joined by the Arthur M. Anderson, another ship that had departed Two Harbors, Minnesota under Captain Bernie Cooper. Aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes the Captains agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. This took them between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula. They would later make a turn to the southeast to eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point. The two ships were in radio contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald in the lead and the distance between them averaging a dozen miles.
The storm’s ferocity increased with winds gusting to 70 knots and seas 18 to 25 feet. At 3:30 in the afternoon of the 10th, Captain McSorley radioed Captain Cooper and said: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?” McSorley was checking down his speed to allow the Anderson to close the distance for safety. Captain Cooper asked McSorley if he had his pumps going, and McSorley said, “Yes, both of them.”
The two ships remained in close radio contact until their last communication at 7:10 p.m. Five minutes later, the pip of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the radar screen of the Anderson was lost again (high seas were interfering with radar reflection), but this time, did not reappear. The Anderson called the Fitzgerald at about 7:22 pm. There was no answer.
The Anderson turned out to be the primary vessel in the search, taking the lead. With the ship pounding and rolling badly, the crew of the Anderson discovered the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats and other debris but no sign of survivors. Only one other vessel, the William Clay Ford, was able to leave the safety of Whitefish Bay to join in the search at the time. The Coast Guard launched a fixed-wing HU-16 aircraft at 10:00 that night and dispatched two cutters, the Naugatuck and the Woodrush. The Naugatuck arrived at 12:45 p.m. on November 11, and the Woodrush arrived on November 14, having journeyed all the way from Duluth, Minnesota. On November 14, a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector located a strong contact 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. During the following three days, the Woodrush, using a side-scan sonar, located two large pieces of wreckage in the same area.
All 29 crew, including the Captain who had commanded the ship since 1972, were lost. No one has ever been recovered. The broken hull of the steamer was located in 530 feet of water, the bow and stern sections lying close together. The lack of survivors and eye witnesses to the wreck, coupled with the lack of clear evidence in subsequent underwater expeditions, leave a variety of theories for the ship’s sinking. And, although the Coast Guard conducted an extensive and thorough search, there is no definitive reason to date. It is one of the most controversial and emotional shipwreck stories in Great Lakes history, further immortalized by Canadian singer/songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot, in his 1976 ballad, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’.
The Minnesota Historical Society’s Split Rock Lighthouse has been a retired lighthouse since 1969, but every November 10th, at dusk, the beacon at Split Rock Lighthouse is relit in memory of those men, that famous ship, and all the sailors lost on other Great Lakes shipwrecks. The Split Rock Lighthouse Visitor Center will open at noon on November 10th and will feature information on Lake Superior gales and shipwrecks, and a film on the tragic last trip of the Edmund Fitzgerald will be shown in the Visitor Center Theater. At 4:30 the lighthouse will be temporarily closed to allow for a brief ceremony on the lighthouse steps. The ceremony, called the “last muster”, will include the reading of the names of the men lost on the Fitzgerald and, the ringing of a ship’s bell for each name, plus a thirtieth for all other victims of Great Lakes shipwrecks. At the conclusion of the ceremony the lighthouse beacon will be lighted, the lighthouse will be reopened, and visitors may climb the interior stairs to the lantern room for a rare, close-up view of the lighted, 3rd order Fresnel lens.
Diane Adams-Graf, Sound & Visual Curator