What you should know about the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Milwaukee-connected ship that sank and inspired a classic Gordon Lightfoot song
One of the most famous shipwrecks of the 20th century occurred north of Wisconsin, involving a ship owned by a Milwaukee corporation, registered in Milwaukee, and named after a Milwaukee CEO — all thanks to a haunting song about the tragedy Legend was created by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.
Here’s what you should know about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
What was the Edmund Fitzgerald?
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was an ore carrier that was the largest ship on the Great Lakes when she was launched in June 1958. The 729-foot vessel cost $8 million to build and was designed to ship taconite iron ore from mines in Duluth, Minnesota to ironworks in port towns around the Great Lakes. Although it was launched in Detroit, Milwaukee was its home port. (At the time of her launch, the Milwaukee Journal called the Edmund Fitzgerald “the new queen of the Great Lakes ore fleet.”) The Edmund Fitzgerald was a hard worker, setting six season records; In 1972, the ship set a catch record with more than 30,000 tons of iron pellets, a record later broken by much larger ships.
Who was Edmund Fitzgerald named after?
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was built by Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. The ship was reportedly the first such investment by an American insurance company; The insurance giant had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industry at the time.
The ship was named after the company’s president and chief executive officer at the time, Edmund Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald came from a nautical family – his father owned a ship repair business and his grandfather was a ship’s captain – and was one of the founders of the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society.
Fitzgerald was also a civic leader who was actively involved in the post-war improvement rush in Milwaukee. According to his 1986 Milwaukee Journal obituary, he was “involved in almost every major improvement in the city during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s,” particularly at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, the Port of Milwaukee, and the downtown Post Office and Amtrak- Railroad station. (His son, Edmund B. Fitzgerald, followed in his footsteps; he was CEO of manufacturing giant Cutler-Hammer a key player in the group that brought Major League Baseball back to Milwaukee with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.)
Why did the Edmund Fitzgerald sink?
On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald was sailing across Lake Superior loaded with more than 26,000 tons of taconite ore pellets when she was caught in a storm with 70-knot winds and 25-foot waves. The ship reported that it had some damage to the topside, including the loss of two air vents and some fence rails, and that the ship was experiencing flooding and was struggling with flooding – but it did not issue a distress call.
The ship sank in Canadian waters about 17 miles northwest of the entrance to Whitefish Bay (in Lake Superior, not Whitefish Bay on the north shore of Milwaukee). All 29 men on the ship perished; Their bodies were never recovered. The ship sank so quickly that the crew did not have time to lower lifeboats, although reports say this would have been difficult in such stormy waters.
Speculations as to why the ship sank have ranged from structural failure to rogue waves; in his knowledge of the sinking, Report of the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation said that the “most likely cause” of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking was “the loss of buoyancy and stability resulting from the massive flooding of the cargo hold”. But the report made no definitive conclusion about the cause.
Was the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald recovered?
Air and sonar surveys found the ship’s wreckage, which appeared to have broken in two, not long after the sinking. A number of dive teams, some unmanned, surveyed the wreck in the three decades after the sinking, recovering lifeboat parts and other debris. In 1995, the ship’s 200-pound bronze bell – a largely ceremonial piece required by the Coast Guard at the time – was recovered and brought to the ship Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan, not far from where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. But in 2006, an amendment to the Ontario Heritage Act declared the shipwreck a protected marine archaeological site, effectively barring expeditions and diving to the ship.
Why did Gordon Lightfoot write Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Gordon Lightfoot got the inspiration to write “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the sinking of the ship in the November 24, 1975 issue Newsweek Magazine. in a (n Interview with Bill Faithr from the Journal Sentinel in November 2015, Just before the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, Lightfoot said he thought the article was “too short, too short” and that those who lost their lives on the Edmund Fitzgerald deserved more.
“I didn’t want it to be forgotten,” Lightfoot said.
The text comes directly from the first line of the Newsweek article: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up their dead.'”
The first verse of the song:
The legend of the Chippewa lives on
Of the great lake they called “Gitche Gumee”.
The lake, it is said, never gives up its dead
When the sky turns gloomy in November.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
When the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
This good ship and true was a bone to chew
When the “November storms” came early.
The shanty-style song quickly arose and was recorded — supposedly on a train — about a month after the sinking. Released the following summer, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was a staple of Lightfoot’s live performances decades later.
“It’s a very good piece of work, I think,” Lightfoot told the Journal Sentinel in 2015. “It’s just one of those songs that stands the test of time and it’s about something that of course would be forgotten very quickly shortly after, which was one of the reasons I wrote the song in the first place. I didn’t want him to be forgotten.”
Lightfoot died on May 1, 2023 at the age of 84.
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Interesting facts about the Edmund Fitzgerald, whose wreck inspired the song