Lost In Time: The SS Edmund Fitzgerald


I was watching a film entitled "Poseidon", a maritime disaster thriller in which a luxury cruise liner is hit by a rogue wave and begins sinking in the Atlantic Ocean, when an idea for this blog struck me.


While the movie was iffy at best (and showing that Richard Dreyfeuss has been typecast as a maritime actor), it brought to my mind both a song and an event that has intrigued me for such a long time. It all started with a trip to Michigan in which someone on the vacation brought to my attention a song I had never once heard before: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", by Gordon Lightfoot.


Lightfoot, a Canadian folk singer, continues my own early trend of bringing up folk singers so maybe a theme is emerging early. But apart from that, Lightfoot achieved success and fame in the early 60s, going on to record five grammy nominated records, receiving multiple Juno awards (I'm ashamed to say I didn't know what that was before looking this up?) and watching many of his songs be re-recorded by artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan.


In 1976, Lightfoot penned the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" based on the real life wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald during a November storm on Lake Superior in Novmeber of '75. Here's some background on the wreck itself.


While the above link will likely provide a much more interesting and engaging summary of the wreck, I will do my best to summarize a summary.


The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was an American Great Lakes freighter, or a great lakes cargo ship, with a length of 729 feet making her the biggest ship on the great lakes at the time of her christening in 1958. The Edmund sailed successfully and without incident for nearly 10 years before beginning to sustain normal damages from usage beginning in the late 1960s.


On the morning of November the 9th, 1975, the ship was loaded down with taconite pellets, that are used in blast furnaces at high temperatures. The ship then set sail at 2:30 P.M. into Lake Superior going towards Zug Island in Detroit, MI. The Fitzgerald was accompanied by the Arthur M. Anderson, keeping in radio contact as they aimed north into the lake hoping to avoid a "November Storm" they knew was brewing.


The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead. When the skies of November turn gloomy. With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more. Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty. That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed. When the gales of November came early.

- "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", Gordon Lightfoot


From the start of the journey, the Edmund Fitzgerald outpaced the Arthur by ranges between 10-15 miles, which would ultimately cause problems in the rescue effort. Still, the Arthur was able to maintain radio contact the entire time, though due to rough seas and storm winds the radio and radar communications would eventually be interupted leading to communications issues.


By 7 PM on the evening of November the 9th, the storm was issued gale warnings with wind gusts up to 50 knots (roughly 57 mph) and 12 to 16 foot waves which would eventually lead to storm warnings early into the 10th. Here's a quick video on how ships stay afloat just in case you were curious.



Anyway, by the afternoon of the 10th the Edmund Fitzgerald was reporting damages already and this was relayed to the Arthur as the Fitzgerald decided to slow its speed and maintain close distance until it reached port. About two hours later the Arthur was hit by a large wave making it's lifeboats unusable. At this point in time the captain of the Arthur was reporting steady wind at 58 knots with gusts up to 70 and waves between 18 and 25 feet.


About an hour and a half later the Arthur was hit by a wave that slammed into it from the back of the pilot house and forced the front of the ship down into the water which was reported as follows:

“Then the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water – barrooff – just like a big dog. Another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.”

- Link to the full story for that quote here.


About fifteen minutes after this wave encounter, the Arthur's radio operator Morgan Clark made final contact with the Ftizgerald. At the time, the Fitzgerald was still struggling along at a reduced speed, but confirmed to Morgan that they were managing their issues along the way. Clark also confirmed to the Fitzgerald that they were about 9 and a half miles behind an gaining at 1 and a half miles per hour.


Clark finally signed off saying, "Okay, fine, I'll be talking to you later." On the radar Clark was monitoring, the pip that signified the Fitzgerald had been intermittently appearing with moderate disruptions before finally disappearing for good five minutes after final contact. Immediately the captain of the Clark became fearful for the Fitzgerald and began signaling other ships in the area to try and find any sighting of the Edmund.


After contacting the coast guard at 8 PM, around 40 minutes after losing contac with the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Arthur turned around and became the primary rescue vessel in the search for the Fitzgerald in an already banged up ship. They eventually stumbled upon empty life boats from the Fitzgerald and other debris with no clear sign of the ship.


The coast guard finally launched ships and airplanes in search of the Fitzgerald which lasted for four days before a sonar plane was brought in. During a three day sonar search, the plane discovered two large pieces of wreckage underwater which was presumed to be the Edmund Fitzgerald.


The video below is a recording of the Arthur M. Anderson communicating with the Coast Guard on the night of November 10th.


This brings us to the Gordon Lightfoot song itself.


While the song is based largely around true events of the wreck, Lightfoot admittedly took some artistic liberties with the writing of the song as he looked for ways to tell a reasonable story that respected the victims and the family rather than use tragedy for sales.


The song peaked at number one in Canada and number two in the United States.


For your listening pleasure, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".




As I did with the last blog so I will do with this one. This is certainly not a promise but it is a lucky coincidence that I have found myself with back to back blogs that have either actual, or fan made style documentaries. Anyhow, if you were intrigued by this story but want to learn more watch the film below or check out the link for the synopsis of events in it's entirety which I used in arranging my timeline.