It is now 40 years exactly since the lake freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a terrible November gale on Lake Superior. The Great Lakes are famous for their suddenly nasty November weather, and the Fitz was neither the first nor the last wreck upon them. But she was the most famous, thanks to a wonderfully moving ballad written by Gordon Lightfoot a year later.
The Great Lakes earn their name in every way. They’re really massive inland seas, composed entirely of freshwater, and are collectively the largest body of freshwater in the world. (Superior alone is the largest lake in the world by surface area, and third largest by volume.) They are very deep, and behave more like the sea than most normal freshwater bodies, and the huge ore freighters that ply them are as big as ocean-going vessels. 700 feet is not unheard of; the Fitzgerald was 729 feet long and 75 feet wide, usually displacing 8,686 tons of water. The biggest of them, the current Queen of the Lakes, is MV Paul R. Tregurtha, at 1,013 feet long by 105 feet wide and with a typical displacement of 14,497 tons, which puts her similar in length to a Nimitz-class supercarrier (but narrower). However, since the Welland Canal (which bypasses Niagara Falls) has locks just 80 feet wide, the Tregurtha can never leave the Great Lakes. The Fitz could just barely have squeaked through, but as far as I know never did. The “lakers”, the big boats that have carried iron ore from northern Minnesota and the upper peninsula of Michigan to the steel mills of Ohio and the lower peninsula of Michigan, have plied their freshwater trade for over a century, shuttling around the lakes, feeding the Rust Belts of the United States and the growth of Canadian cities like Toronto.
The Great Lakes are spectacularly beautiful, and have a wild, ancient beauty as much of their coastlines remain undeveloped. Most of the time, the lakes are vast, blue, and peaceful. Cold, but peaceful. (Lake Superior is so cold that swimming in it is actively dangerous most of the year. Only in August does it warm up enough to not be so dangerous, though it remains quite bracing even then.) But the “witch of November” can whip up rapidly and with little warning, as winter storms racing across North America can be unpredictable. Some of the worst storms, including the one in 1975 that sank the Fitz, are technically extra-tropical cyclones, and ships on the lake that night reported hurricane-force winds. It is imperative to get off the lakes in late November. In 1975, though, the bad weather came early, and went a different direction than forecasts had predicted. On top of that, Superior’s shape makes it prone to developing seiches, standing waves that effectively slosh from one coast to the opposite one. Waves of 35 feet were reported on November 10, 1975, and the Fitz disappeared completely from view between waves, as seen from the SS Arthur M Anderson, before the final fateful radio call of “we’re holding our own”, after which she disappeared for good.
To this day, it is still hotly debated exactly what brought the big laker down, but the ship and crew are not forgotten. Every year, on November 10, the Mariner’s Church in Detroit rings its bell 29 times for all the crew of the Fitzgerald, and one more time for all the other shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, near where the Fitz was intending to wait out the storm, possesses the recovered bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and it is also rung every year.