Today’s post provided by Dave Sproule, Natural Heritage Education Specialist.
Forty-seven years ago, the enormous freighter Edmund Fitzgerald shipwrecked in Lake Superior.
This is the story.
Life on Lake Superior
As the saying goes, Lake Superior is a “climate maker.” It is the resting place of many ships, boats, canoes and their crews. Thousands of boats have ended up prematurely in this inland sea.
Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake by area, so large that it creates its own climate and affects the climate of the region.
Storms can appear at any time, but the combination of prevailing winds, weather and seasonal changes means the lake becomes rougher as summer progresses.
In the late 18th century, travelers of the Northwest Company rowed 36′ (10 m) canoes loaded with trade goods as they headed west beyond the Great Lakes. and valuable furs upon returning east to Montreal.
On Lake Superior, you could expect the wind to hit the shoreline one day out of every three early in the season. In August, two out of every three days could be affected by wind.
In late fall, “November Gales” often hit Superior, creating dangerous conditions even for large modern ships.
The Edmund Fitzgerald
The most famous shipwreck on Lake Superior is the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 222-metre iron ore transporter that sank 18 km off Coppermine Point, 60 km north of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario.
The Edmund Fitzgerald and its crew of 29 departed Superior, Wisconsin, on November 9, 1975 with 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets in its hold, bound for Detroit, Michigan. The ship was the largest freighter sailing the Great Lakes when she was launched in 1958.
The ship’s captain, Ernest McSorley, and his fellow captain Bernie Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson, who was sailing with the Fitzgerald that November day, chose a route along the northern part of Lake Superior to avoid a storm that was developing towards the southwest. .
At the end of November 9, the storm arrived and strong winds raised waves three to four meters high. But both captains had seen conditions like this before.
Conditions had worsened by the afternoon of November 10, and snow and dew reduced visibility. The Fitzgerald was filling with water and both of her pumps were running.
McSorley radioed Cooper that the Fitz was listing. The Anderson’s captain had noted on his radar that the Fitzgerald had sailed very close to Six Fathom Shoal as the ship passed Caribou Island, as they sailed toward the safety of Whitefish Bay on the east end of Superior.
Late in the afternoon, the captain of the Anderson noted wind gusts of up to 70 knots and waves of up to 8 meters. At 6:55 p.m., the Anderson was swallowed by a huge wave that ran from stern to bow, and another huge wave followed.
Captain Cooper saw the two waves racing south toward the Fitzgerald’s position 25 km ahead. Cooper would later say that he was sure those were the waves that had sunk the Fitzgerald.
The last radio communication between the Fitzgerald and the Anderson was at 7:10 pm. The Fitzgerald disappeared and reappeared on the Anderson’s radar: the height of the waves caused interference.
Cooper asked Captain McSorley how they were doing. McSorley responded: “We stand firm.” A few minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from the radar screen for the last time.
Many theories have been put forward as to why and how the Fitzgerald sank.
The cause was “massive cargo hold flooding,” which the U.S. Coast Guard attributed at the time to loose cargo hatch covers.
Others dispute this, citing the ship’s passage over Six Fathom Shoal, which may have damaged the hull, as the reason the ship took on water, making it heavier and more susceptible to damage from the large waves the Anderson experienced. .
It seems likely that the ship was overwhelmed by waves and “submarine” bow-first below the surface of the lake. The weight of the boat pushed it to the bottom of the lake, 160 m below the surface.
When the Fitzgerald was found, it was discovered that it had broken in two, almost in half. An expedition to search for the wreck and recover her bell revealed that the ship’s bow had received a significant impact.
Its cargo of iron ore pellets spilled onto the lake bottom between the upright bow section and the overturned stern section.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot
Just two weeks after the sinking of the Fitzgerald, Newsweek Magazine published a story about the tragedy in its November 24, 1975 issue titled “Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month, James R. Gaines with Jon Lowell in Detroit.”
The story began like this: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitch Gumee “He never gives up his dead.”
This story inspired Gordon Lightfoot to write what he considers his most significant song, and certainly one that many Canadians and Americans know well. The song is a tribute to the men who sailed on the Fitzgerald and lost their lives on that stormy night.