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Old 10-23-2005, 10:32 AM   #1
Auburn Annie
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Posted on Sun, Oct. 23, 2005


Split Rock Lighthouse, about 50 miles north of Duluth, Minn., was the last lighthouse to make visual contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald. The freighter is remembered in ceremonies at the lighthouse each Nov. 10.


Edmund Fitzgerald remembered in sites and song


Special to The Star

ON THE SHORES OF LAKE SUPERIOR — I first learned about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on an eight-track tape.

That dates me, I know. If the big freighter had sunk today, I might have known about it almost immediately from CNN, online and dozens of other 24-hour news services.

But almost 30 years ago, Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot was part of my eight-track collection. And his most well-known song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” tells of the November 1975 loss of the ship in Lake Superior near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee,” Lightfoot sings. Can’t you hear it? “The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, When the skies of November turn gloomy.”

Lightfoot’s woeful voice and the song’s droning rhythm reflect the peril of the maritime disaster. Even today it captures the pain felt by all those affiliated with the shipping industry.

The Fitz was lost in one of the most powerful storms ever on Superior. Each year the 29 persons who went down with the Fitzgerald, as well as others lost in Great Lakes shipwrecks, are remembered at commemorations around the shipping channels. On Nov. 10 additional homage will be paid at four sites on the Great Lakes as the gales of November are remembered.

Although the Fitzgerald garners much of the attention, these events and the museums that host them provide a fascinating look into the otherwise largely unnoticed and treacherous world of maritime traffic along the U.S./Canadian border.

Superior stats

It was a warm, sunny day — Nov. 9, 1975 — when the 735-foot Edmund Fitzgerald left the docks of Superior, Wis., fully loaded with 26,000 tons of iron ore. At the time the Fitz was the largest boat on the Great Lakes. Technically it was carrying taconite pellets, a less pure form of iron that is a staple product of Minnesota’s “iron mountains.”

On any given day at the Superior, Wis.-Duluth, Minn., harbor, you can see taconite and other raw materials being loaded aboard superfreighters heading to ports along the Great Lakes or to international harbors by way of the 2,300-mile seaway system to the Atlantic Ocean.

On a dinner cruise through the harbor last September, we felt dwarfed as our sightseeing boat nudged up beside freighters nearly a third larger than the Fitzgerald.

Vessels on Lake Superior are called boats, not ships, and people on the lakes know the names and statistics of these big freighters like many Kansas Citians know the names and statistics of Chiefs players.

Visitors can learn which boats are coming and going at www.lsmma .com , the Web site for the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth’s trendy Canal Park. If you happen to be visiting this museum when a boat arrives, you’ll hear announcements regarding its name, cargo and other statistics, much like when a star athlete takes the field.

Every year the center holds an event called “The Gales of November.” Now in its 18th year the Gales of November was begun as a tribute to the Fitzgerald, but it now provides an opportunity for participants to learn about other shipwrecks and environmental factors that affect Lake Superior.

This year’s event, Nov. 11 and 12, includes shipwreck artifact exhibits, boat tours, a silent auction and speakers on topics ranging from lighthouse preservation to documentation of shipwrecks to exotic species that are threatening the ecosystem of the lake.

As the event concludes, a bell rings 30 times, once for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald and an additional time for all others lost on the Great Lakes.

Under the radar

As the Fitzgerald made its way up Minnesota’s rugged North Shore, the winds switched, bringing freezing rain, snow and waves crashing over the railing. The last lighthouse to make visual contact with the Fitz was Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors, Minn., about 50 miles north of Duluth.

Split Rock is now operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, which occasionally turns on the historic light. Its beautiful 25-acre grounds include a restored keepers house and exhibits that provide insight to the lonely and dangerous world of light keepers more than 100 years ago. A hiking trail that leads down 171 steps to Lake Superior’s cold waters is well worth the cardiovascular workout. The view of the lighthouse and rugged coastline from the bottom of the 130-foot cliff is spectacular.

Each Nov. 10, the lighthouse closes temporarily at 4:30 p.m., which was about the time the Fitz passed this harbor. At that time the names of the lost crew members are read and a ship’s bell rings 29 times, often by a relative of a victim. The historic beacon is lighted and visitors are allowed inside, the only time of the year to see the lighted beacon from inside.

Seeking protection from the storm, the Fitz continued to hug the shoreline. It was joined in its long struggle through the storm by the Arthur M. Anderson, a superfreighter that had departed Superior/Duluth shortly after the Fitz.

About seven miles from the Fitzgerald, the Anderson’s captain and crew kept radio contact with the Fitz and learned that radar and other navigational equipment had failed. Winds were gusting up to 90 mph and waves capping at 40 feet.

At 7:10 p.m. Capt. Ernest McSorley on the Fitzgerald radioed that water was coming in, but they were holding their own. That was his last transmission. A few minutes later the Anderson could no longer see the lights from the Fitz. At 7:25 p.m. the radar image disappeared.

Local lore

The great boat lies in two pieces beneath 530 feet of water on Caribou Shoals Reef in Canadian waters, 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, Mich. None of the crew was recovered.

Several theories have been debated on the exact cause of the disaster. The most widely accepted is that as the Fitzgerald topped a 40-foot wave, the load created a torpedo effect, forcing it to Lake Superior’s floor.

A good place to study those theories and learn more about the 6,000 additional shipwrecks on the Great Lakes is at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This is where the Fitzgerald and the Arthur M. Anderson were heading and is considered the turning point for all shipping traffic in and out of Lake Superior.

Whitefish Point Light, built in 1849, was tragically dark the night the Fitzgerald sought shelter from the storm. The grounds today include a museum, the restored keeper’s quarters, a video theater and bed-and-breakfast inn.

Exhibits cover numerous shipwrecks and conditions that led to the disasters, but the focal point is the 200-pound bell from the pilothouse of the Fitzgerald. In July 1995 a dive crew from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, with encouragement from crew family members, removed the bell from the roof of the pilothouse and replaced it with a memorial bell engraved with the names of those who died on the Fitzgerald.

In Sault Ste. Marie, about 70 nautical miles from where the Fitzgerald went down, Linda Hoath was the young mother of a 6-month-old baby the night of Nov. 10, 1975, and had to go out in the storm to buy formula. As she drove along Portage Avenue, she recalled, the rain was pounding so hard she could barely see.

“I heard the next day that the Edmund Fitzgerald had gone down and then the stories about the Arthur M. Anderson going back for her,” Hoath said. “I loved the ships and knew them so well, it was very upsetting for me.”

Hoath told us this story a few weeks ago at the Soo Locks Visitors Center in Sault Ste. Marie, where a schedule of boats coming through is posted and an observation deck allows a bird’s-eye inspection of the proceedings.

Later that day, as we crossed the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge over Lake Huron to Michigan’s lower peninsula, a huge freighter was just crossing under the bridge. We strained our eyes, searching for the name of the boat, beginning to feel the bond that others in the region have with these huge vessels — and there it was: The Arthur M. Anderson, which had been with the Edmund Fitzgerald 30 years ago, was passing directly beneath us, a blue sky and calm winds its only companion on this voyage.


Mariners’ Church

“In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,

In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral

the church bell chimed ’til it rang 29 times

for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”

— Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

The Mariners’ Church of Detroit was founded in 1849 as a sanctuary for those who worked on the Great Lakes. At the time of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Rev. Richard Ingalls knelt in prayer and then rang the church bell 29 times, one for each soul lost. This was the beginning of “The Call to the Last Watch,” the bell-ringing ceremony that will be replicated at numerous sites around the Great Lakes on Nov. 10, including at the Mariners’ Church of Detroit.

■ Mariners’ Church, 170 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit. (313) 259-2206 or
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Old 10-23-2005, 11:39 AM   #2
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Beautiful article. Sharron (mnmouse) will be at the event at Split Rock this year, I have bullied her into sending me pictures - maybe she will post some. I lived in Finland Minn. when the Fitz went down and it was so horrible, even now it continues to be haunting 30 years later. Surprising how sometimes the thought of it just crosses my mind with no provication - even though I knew nobody on the ship.
Thanks again Annie as always you are right on top for us!

[ October 23, 2005, 11:45: Message edited by: brink ]
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Old 10-23-2005, 01:52 PM   #3
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Wonderful article, Annie, thanks for sharing! No bullying necessary, Deb, and I'd be happy to share some pictures with you all. Planning to make the SplitRock event, and then hoping to make it down to the Maritime Center activities that weekend. I'll be sure and share all I can!

"Someday we'll wave hello and wish we'd never waved goodbye..." -- Billy Corgan
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Old 10-23-2005, 04:02 PM   #4
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My wife Debbie and I are planning to go to the Nov. 10 at Split Rock Lighthouse event, at this point.

We were at Split Rock to see the colorful leaves in late September and found out about the ceremony. I have never seen the lighthouse actually lit and we thought the 30-year anniversary was great timing to do so.

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1969 but no doubt, the Edmund Fitzgerald sailed by her many times in the years preceding. It would be interesting to know how many times the Fitz loaded taconite in Duluth/Superior, Two Harbors and Silver Bay, MN. Anyone ever research that?

I was a 13-year living in northern Minnesota during that storm. It was the first year I was allowed to deer hunt. On Saturday, we were hunting in shirt sleeves and remember my father worried about trying to dress deer quickly in such warmth. Then the storm hit with terrible ferocity. I remember hearing about the shipwreck at the time but did not think much about it until the following summer when this eerie song began playing on the radio. And I have been a fan ever since.

John/North Branch, MN
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Old 10-24-2005, 09:06 AM   #5
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I'm a member of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, so am a frequent visitor at Whitefish Point, MI. It's a strange feeling to stand on that beach, see freighters pass by, and remember what happened 30 years ago. I'm planning to attend the 30th Anniversary Service there on November 10th.

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Old 10-24-2005, 10:58 AM   #6
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Nice to know there will be some other corfidites there at Split Rock in November. I'm not sure at this point if it will be just me, or myself and my daughter, but perhaps we will have the opportunity to meet and say hello.

I grew up in the Twin Ports area, and was a teen living just outside of Superior when the tragedy ocurred. I remember it well, and got chills the following year the first time I heard The Wreck...even more so when I heard Gord do it live in the fall of '76 in Duluth.

Looking forward to the event at Split Rock.

"Someday we'll wave hello and wish we'd never waved goodbye..." -- Billy Corgan
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Old 10-24-2005, 08:39 PM   #7
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First off,I'm finally back after many grueling days at work! [img]tongue.gif[/img] Ugh! Missed y'all!

Anyhow,has anyone evr realized how amazing a coincidence it was that this wreck happend 1 wek before Gordon's 37th birthday? Also,that the song reached it's peak of #2 exactly 1 year later on his birthday in 1976?! Wow! Talk about destiny!

I'm sure there was something afoot in the universe that year.
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Old 10-25-2005, 01:35 AM   #8
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Welcome back, Borderstone!
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Old 10-25-2005, 06:20 PM   #9
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Originally posted by Borderstone:
I'm sure there was something afoot in the universe that year.
Borderstone, I think you mean, "I'm sure there was something a Lightfoot in the universe that year."
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Old 10-25-2005, 06:24 PM   #10
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That was a good one Cathy! :D LOL! Now why didn't I think of that?? Man,I must be slippin'!!

By the way,along with Cathy,John F.,Jenney & New 12 string Mike are on as well! Hi guys & gals! :D Not often I see so many regulars on at once!
"A knight of the road,going back to a place where he might get warm." - Borderstone
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