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Images of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Edmund Fitzgerald

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

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Minnesota and the Federal Writers’ Project Exhibit

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

WPA Fair booth, 1938

The Great Depression was a terrible time for Minnesota and the rest of the nation. One of the New Deal programs intended to get people back to work was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was one of the Roosevelt Administration’s most successful projects, creating jobs in everything from road construction to feeding people to literacy and more.

WPA programs focusing on the arts produced some of the best examples of federal support. In addition to producing amazing works of art, the Federal Writers’ Project was designed to encourage written work and support writers through the tough times.  Among the most well-known products are the state guides series.  Other works created by the Writers’ Project focused on history, society, and the land around them. Some examples are on display in the Library cases.

This exhibit will be on view when the Library is open, and is part of the Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story project, organized by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library. For more information about other programs in this series, please go to:


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The Northfield Duster

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Duster used in Northfield bank raid

Like the First Minnesota’s charge at Gettysburg, or the Dillinger gang’s escapades in St. Paul, every good Minnesotan knows the story of the Northfield Raid. On September 7, 1876, Frank and Jesse James, along with Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. When clerk Joseph Lee Haywood refused to open the vault, the James-Younger gang shot him dead. Northfield citizens heard the shot, grabbed their own guns, and ambushed the gang in the street. Gang members Clell Miller and William Stiles were killed, as was Northfield resident Nicholas Gustavson. The James brothers got away, but the Youngers were captured near Madelia, Minnesota, after several days of pursuit. Sentenced to life in the Stillwater State Prison, Cole and Jim were paroled in 1901 (Bob died in prison in 1889).

Among the most revered objects in the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection is this linen duster. It was recovered outside of the Northfield bank just after the raid, and is known to have been worn by one of the James-Younger gang members (purportedly, Cole Younger himself). Dusters were common in the horse-and-buggy era (and even in the days of open automobiles). Just as its name implies, a lightweight duster keeps dust and dirt off of one’s clothes while traveling. For the robbers, though, their dusters served a darker purpose. The long, loose garments concealed their guns. As soon as the gang members walked into the bank, they shed their outerwear and revealed their weapons. This duster was left behind as the gang fled from the ambush.

The duster came to the Society in 1890 as a donation from George N. Baxter, the prosecuting attorney for Rice County in 1876. Baxter apparently held onto this piece of evidence after the Youngers’ trial, and saw to it that it was preserved for future generations. While the Youngers’ prison sentences may have been cut short, the duster’s survival seems far more permanent.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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The Ferrell Collection: Cataloging and Photography

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Collections Assistants Jane Wong and John Fulton discuss their efforts to catalog and photograph more than 3,000 different objects in the Richard Ferrell Flour Milling Industry History Collection. The size of the collection, together with some of the unusual items it contained, presented special challenges. You can learn more about the collection from Mr. Ferrell himself in an earlier podcast.

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An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs