Although The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald does not appear in my fantasy novel “Song of Simon,” many folk songs do. Before novels, I covered music for many different magazines. This is part of a series I wrote for suite101 back in 2010. I didn’t update the dates, but this year will be the 41st anniversary of its sinking.
On November 10th 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank just outside of Whitefish Bay, on Lake Superior. Already a locally famous freighter due to its size, the Fitzgerald became an American legend thanks to a tribute song by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald Sinks Near Whitefish Bay
Even before its tragic fate, the Edmund Fitzgerald was a well known freighter. According to S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, at its christening in 1958 it was the largest freighter to sail on the Great Lakes.
For most of its career, the Edmund Fitzgerald carried taconite from the mines in Minnesota to iron works in the major cities situated to the East such as Detroit, Michigan. That is exactly what the Fitzgerald was doing the night of its famous sinking.
The Edmund Fitzgerald sailed out of Superior, Wisconsin on November 9th 1975, heading for the ironworks on Zug Island, outside Detroit. Behind it trailed a smaller freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson.
While crossing Lake Superior, the Fitzgerald and the Anderson encountered a massive gale, with winds over 50 knots (1 knot =1.15 mph) and waves of 10 feet. The dangerous weather forced the temporary closing of the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, which meant that the two freighters had to find shelter along the Canadian coast, then continue to Whitefish Bay and the Soo Locks.
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By the afternoon of Nov. 10th, the Edmund Fitzgerald reported that it had suffered topside damage, was listing, and had lost both radars. The Arthur M. Anderson was still with the Fitzgerald and assisting the damaged freighter as they headed to Whitefish Bay.
The last transmission of the Edmund Fitzgerald came at 7:10 PM. It reported to the Anderson that it was “holding its own” in regards to its damage. Fifteen minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar. The Edmund Fitzgerald sunk, with all 29 sailors aboard following the freighter into the sea.
Gordon Lightfoot Writes “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot was inspired to write “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about it in Newsweek. Similar–those many years earlier–Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young being inspired to write “Ohio” by pictures of the Kent State Massacre in Life Magazine.
The article, written by James R. Gaines, began “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’“ Lightfoot used a variation of this line for the first stanza of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called “Gitche Gumee.”
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
According to Lightfoot’s website, Lightfoot believes that “his most significant contribution to music was” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He already had several hits in his career by 1975, including “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown.” “Edmund Fitzgerald” would go on to be his most memorable song of all.
The 35th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald
This year, 2010, marks the 35th anniversary of the famous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. All that remains of the famed ship now is its 200 pound bronze bell, which was recovered in 1995 for its 20th anniversary. The bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald is on display at The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located right on Whitefish Bay in Michigan.
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