The Sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior (the largest of the Great Lakes) on November 10, 1975. The entire crew of 29 died as of result of the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck. While the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is not nearly as catastrophic (in terms of loss of human live) as some of the deadliest shipwrecks that have occurred at sea, it is noteworthy because the Edmund Fitzgerald for a time was the largest ship on the Great Lakes, and it remains the largest ship to have ever sunk in these waters. Below you will find an overview of the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster, as well as some information about the vessel itself.

[NOTE: Why is this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]

Unusually, and somewhat ironically, the Edmund Fitzgerald was commissioned to be built by an insurance company. Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, a company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, invested in the iron and mineral industries, and a part of their investment strategy involved the construction of the Edmund Fitzgerald. An engineering firm in Michigan was contracted to design and build the ship. The Edmund Fitzgerald was built to the maximum size allowed for passage through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which was built around the same time that the ship was being built (in the 1950s). The ship was 730 feet (222.5 meters) long and 75 feet (22.9 meters) wide, and it had a gross tonnage of 13,632.

Because the ship was so large, the Edmund Fitzgerald was sometimes called the “Queen of the Lakes.” The size of the ship also allowed it to carry massive amounts of taconite iron ore, which was mined in Minnesota and taken to ports around the Great Lakes, like Detroit, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio. The ship was so prolific in its shipments – the vessel averaged 47 trips per season – that it set the seasonal haul record six times. On a single trip in 1969, the Edmund Fitzgerald carried 27,402 long tons (61,380,480 pounds), the vessel’s record. At the time of its sinking, it had made 748 round trips on the Great Lakes. The ship had undeniably earned its reputation for being a “workhorse.”

On the day the ship sank, it was en route to a steel mill near Detroit. It was carrying a large shipment of taconite ore pellets, as usual. The day before the shipwreck, the National Weather Service said that a storm would occur in the Great Lakes region, but that it would pass Lake Superior, where the ship was sailing. The Edmund Fitzgerald, along with another freighter that it was traveling with (the Arthur M. Anderson), decided to take its regular route. However, by 7:00 pm the day before the sinking, the NWS revised its forecast, issuing gale warnings for Lake Superior. Over the next 24 hours, the weather become worse, and during the day of the sinking, the Edmund Fitzgerald was separated from the Arthur M. Anderson. At 3:30 PM on this day, the Edmund Fitzgerald starting taking on water, and the ship began to list. The situation became increasingly bad over the next few hours. The Edmund Fitzgerald experienced a radar failure and the wind speed picked up. There were also huge waves on the lake, some as high as 35 feet (7.6 meters). Since no one survived the wreck, the situation on board the ship during its last moments is not known. The last communication from the Edmund Fitzgerald was sent to the Arthur M. Anderson at 7:10 PM. The captain of the doomed vessel reportedly said that “we are holding our own” in response to the Arthur M. Anderson’s status inquiry. However, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank minutes after this, slipping off the Arthur M. Anderson’s radar forever.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald did not claim the lives of thousands of people, as so many other ship disasters have, but 29 people nevertheless died as a result of the shipwreck. No one survived the wreck, and no bodies were recovered. Many people know of this tragedy from the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, by Gordon Lightfoot.

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