The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
Of the big lake they call gichi-gumi.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead,
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more,
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed.
When the gales of November came early.
Living in Southern Ontario, we have easy access to three of the five Great Lakes. Many children spent time holidaying on Huron, Erie or Ontario. In school we learned to memorize the names of the Great Lakes with the acronym “HOMES”: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. The Ojibwe called Superior “gichi-gami” meaning “big sea”. When I was a kid we spent our summers at the cottage in Kincardine. Kincardine is located on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, or as my dad used to call it when I was a toddler, “big water”. Some things are universal.
We are surrounded by nautical activity, from the great locks at Welland canal, to the legendary shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Just a few kilometers south of Kincardine is Boiler Beach, so named because a few meters from the shore sits the boiler from an old steamer that exploded in 1883. The Erie Belle was a tug boat sent to rescue another ship that had blown aground after missing Kincardine harbour and attempting to turn around. It could not budge the freighter, and the Erie Belle’s boiler exploded when the engine overheated and seized. The piece of history is still sitting there partly due to the cold fresh waters of Huron. You can see it clearly even from the road. If that kind of sight doesn’t instil in a kid an interest in nautical Great Lakes history, nothing will. And then there are glass-bottom boats that do tours, and in clear waters to view shipwrecks.
We also weathered quite a few storms that rolled in off the lake, taking down hydro poles and trees. All you can do is sit tight and wait it out. We always kept several oil lamps at the cottage, ready to go, and we had to use them annually. It was easy to see how a even a huge ship could come to harm in such a storm.
Today, thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s musical immortalization, the wreck of the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald is the most famous Great Lakes shipwreck of all time.
The huge freighter was hauling iron from Duluth, Minnesota to steel mills in Detroit, Michigan. Its final destination of the season was the port of Cleveland. It was late in the year 1975, and the big ship had to traverse the entire length of Superior, the deepest and most northerly lake. From there, to the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, and then south down the entire length of Huron. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a sturdy ship, launched in 1958 as the largest on the lakes. She broke speed records, and then broke her own records. She was a favourite to crowds because of the charismatic “DJ Captain”, Captain Peter Pulcer. He enjoyed piping music in the loudspeakers, and entertaining crowds on the St. Clair and Detroit rivers with tales of the big ship. But it was Captain Ernest M. McSorley who was command that fateful night in November.
There was a storm on the radar, but the weather service predicted it would proceed harmlessly south of Lake Superior. The Edmund Fitzgerald departed on November 9, but by 7 pm that night, the weather reports suddenly changed. The storm was crossing the lake, and they sounded the warning for gale-force winds. Pounded by 60 mph winds and 10 foot waves, the Edmund Fitzgerald headed north for shelter.
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck,
Saying, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.”
At seven PM it grew dark, it was then,
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in,
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when her lights went out of sight,
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Gordon Lightfoot was fascinated by the story and wrote the famous song around the disaster. His storytelling ability made it legendary, never to be forgotten. It went to #1 on every relevant chart in Canada, and has been covered by artists as diverse as the Dandy Warhols and the Rhoestatics. And in honour of the 29 men who died on that ship, he has revised his old lyrics. Formerly the words went, “At seven PM a main hatchway caved in.” However this implies the hatchway was not secured properly, and investigations showed that there was no crew error in the disaster. With respect to history, Lightfoot changed the line to “At seven PM it grew dark, it was then…”
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings,
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams,
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below, Lake Ontario,
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her.
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know,
With the gales of November remembered.
The Edmund Fitzgerald lies at the bottom today, 15 miles from the aptly named Deadman’s Cove, Ontario. It is now a protected site, but there are no conclusive answers to what happened in her final moments. The way Lightfoot worded it was appropriately vague: “And later that night when her lights went out of sight, Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” What is more important today, rather than the cause of the wreck, is the fact that the 29 people lost at sea are now immortal. Gordon Lightfoot ensured that.
In a rustic old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral,
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times,
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.