The Sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald
On the 35th Anniversary of that sad day when 29 sailors lost their lives, new developments shed light on the sinking of the “Mighty Fitz.”
The legend lives on from Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
On November 10, 2010, crowds of people will gather at the Mariner’s Memorial Lighthouse, on the banks of the Detroit River in River Rouge, Michigan, as well as at the Mariner’s Church in Detroit. The somber crowds will be gathering to mark the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in a terrible storm in 1975, killing all 29 men on board.
These days, with the thousands murdered in the attacks of 9/11, and thousands more lost in the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, the loss of life resulting from the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking, while tragic, seems relatively small.
However, there is one important reason why so many Americans still remember those noble seamen who lost their lives that sad day on Lake Superior. Just months after the “Mighty Fitz” sank, Canadian-born singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot penned the epic ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which became a massive hit on U.S. radio and across North America. The song – which tells of “that good ship and true” as a “bone to be chewed / when the Gales of November came early” – ended up spending over 20 weeks on the U.S. charts.
The song proved so evocative that Irish singer-songwriter Christy Moore used Lightfoot’s melody when he recorded the song “Back Home in Derry” – with lyrics by Bobby Sands – just three years after the international outcry over the hunger strikes that made Sands an international icon.
The Irish and the “Mighty Fitz”
The 35th anniversary of the Fitzgerald’s sinking is a good time to reflect on the broader Irish links to the tragic sinking.
The ship itself, after all, was named after a member of a prominent Irish-American shipping family. Among the crew members who perished were men with names such as Rafferty, O’Brien and McCarthy. The ship’s captain was a Toledo, Ohio native named Ernest McSorley.
Finally, though the ship sank over three decades ago, new developments continue to alter our understanding of how the ship sunk – and even how Gordon Lightfoot performs the ballad to this day. Earlier this year, as a matter of fact, the troubadour decided to change a key lyrical passage to reflect new information about the ship’s fatal voyage.
Why does the story and song of the Edmund Fitzgerald still resonate? Perhaps the best question to start with is this: Who, exactly, was Edmund Fitzgerald?
Six Fitzgerald Brothers
The story of the Fitzgerald shipping clan begins in the early 19th century, when William and Julianna Fitzgerald left Ireland. Edmund’s great-grandparents “were immigrants from Ireland and settled first in China Township, St. Clair County, in 1837, on a farm near Marine City, Michigan,” local historian Dick Wicklund wrote in a 2006 edition of The Lightship, the newsletter of the Lake Huron Lore Marine Society.
Six of the Fitzgerald boys eventually became captains on the Great Lakes later in the 19th century, including the oldest, Edmond (spelled with an ‘o’) and the youngest, John, who relocated to Milwaukee. John’s own son William eventually took control of a family shipyard, which had been established in Milwaukee. Sadly, William Fitzgerald died when his youngest son, Edmund, (with a ‘u’) was just six years old.
A fellow Irish-American veteran of the sea, Captain Dennis Sullivan, sought to honor the memory of Edmund’s father by naming a ship after him, christening the W.E. Fitzgerald in 1906. This was known as “Little Fitz” when, five decades later, in 1958, the “big” or “Mighty” Fitz” took to the waters: The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, named in honor of William’s son Edmund. Edmund did not enter the family business, but was instead promoted to the office of president of the company that owned the ship — the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee. But even if Edmund Fitzgerald was not a man of the sea, his family’s link to the waters was well known.
Edmund’s daughter Elizabeth Cutler eventually wrote a family history entitled Six Fitzgerald Brothers: Lake Captains All. The book was published in 1983. Three years later, her own father passed away, “still deeply saddened by the wreck of the ship named for him,” as local historian Dick Wicklund wrote.
That Awful Day
When it hit the waters in 1958, the “Mighty Fitz” was the largest freighter sailing the Great Lakes, at over 700 feet long and 75 feet wide, with a 7,500-horsepower engine.
By November 9, 1975, Ernest McSorley had been the ship’s captain for three years, with some four decades of shipping experience under his belt. At around 8:30 that morning, the ship was loaded with over 26,000 tons of iron ore, to be transported over Lake Superior. That afternoon, not long after the Fitzgerald set sail, the National Weather Service issued a warning for gale-force winds. Just after midnight on November 10, Captain McSorley and the Fitzgerald crew were facing waves ten feet high.
Still, the Fitzgerald ably battled the elements well into the afternoon of November 10. Another ship, the S.S. Arthur Anderson, captained by Jesse Cooper, eventually made radio contact with Captain McSorley.
It is believed that at around 7 p.m. the ship was pummeled by two massive waves, possibly as high as 35 feet. Winds, by this time, were said to be gusting close to 100 miles an hour. And yet, at 7:10 p.m., Captain McSorley said of the ship: “We are holding our own.”
Captain Cooper still believed he could help guide the Fitzgerald safely to nearby Whitefish Bay — under 10 miles away — even after the ship’s radar signal disappeared behind a snow squall, which was not uncommon.
The Mighty Fitz, however, never returned to the radar screen.
When the sun rose on November 10, as families were beginning to be notified, and the awful reality began to sink in, Rev. Richard Ingalls rang the bell at Detroit’s Mariner’s Church 29 times – one time for each crew member aboard the vanished S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.
A Song for the Ages
Later in November, Newsweek magazine ran a report on the Fitzgerald tragedy entitled “Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month.” The article begins: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’”
And so the seed of Lightfoot’s song was planted. The record was released in 1976 and was an immediate, if unlikely, hit. Unlike most pop songs – Rod Stewart’s syrupy ode to seduction “Tonight’s the Night” was number one at the time – Lightfoot’s song had complex lyrics and no chorus. It was also nearly seven minutes long. Nevertheless, this was the post-folk era of the singer-songwriter, of Don McLean (“American Pie”) and Harry Chapin and Jim Croce. Lightfoot rode that wave and created an epic which is as catchy as it is atmospheric.
The lyrics are both simple (“The ship was the pride of the American side / When they left fully loaded for Cleveland”) and existential (“Does anyone know where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours”). They also capture the unique experience of the sea culture of Michigan, Canada and the broader Great Lakes region.
Perhaps most interestingly, just this year, Lightfoot decided to change parts of the song’s lyrics. At one point, Lightfoot sings:
When suppertime came the old cook came on deck saying
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed you.
At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said
Fellas, it’s been good to know ya!
The third line of that section was based on the assumption that crew members failed to secure the hatchway. To some, this placed a mild amount of blame for the ship’s demise on the crew. Subsequent research, however, suggests the crew had done everything it could. So, when Lightfoot, now 71, performs the song in concert, he sings: “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said / Fellas…”
Incidentally, “the old cook” refers to one of the several Irish Americans who went down with the ship: Robert Rafferty.
The Irish Version
Lightfoot’s “The Wreck” made the men on the ship immortal. Every November 10, at the Mariner’s Church, the bell is rung 29 times. The ship was eventually discovered 500 feet underwater. On the 20th anniversary of the sinking, in 1995, the ship’s own bell was brought to the surface and put on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
But if there were any doubts that Lightfoot’s song was a transcendent masterpiece, they were erased earlier, in 1984, less than a decade after the tragedy.
That’s when Irish balladeer Christy Moore set the song’s hypnotic melody to lyrics entitled “Back Home in Derry.” The lyrics were written by Bobby Sands, who had taken part in the infamous 1981 Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland. During that time, Sands was famously elected to parliament, before perishing, along with nine other strikers, in Long Kesh prison.
Just three years after Sands’ death, Moore set Sands’ words to Lightfoot’s music. Though based on events half a world away, there are striking lyrical similarities between “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Back Home in Derry.”
The Sands ballad, like Lightfoot’s, is about a perilous sea journey. “Back Home in Derry,” however, is set in 1803, as Irish prisoners are “Australia bound / if we didn’t all drown / And the marks of our fetters we carried.”
In the rusty iron chains we sighed for our wains
As our good wives we left in sorrow.
As the mainsails unfurled our curses we hurled
On the English and thoughts of tomorrow.
Oh, I wish I was back home in Derry.
Oh, I wish I was back home in Derry.
In recent years, the Edmund Fitzgerald memorial has become a service not only for the 29 lost on November 10, 1975 but for all those who ever perished at sea. This seems fitting, just as Christy Moore adapting Lightfoot’s music brought out the song’s universality. This shows us that there are no international boundaries when it comes to great art. In the end, the precise reason why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank was never established. The ship “might have split up,” the song tells us.
It may have broke deep and took water.
All that remains are the faces and the names
Of the wives and the son and the daughters.
Of course, one more thing remains: the music.