#483: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

WRECJ IFGETTING MORE TALE #483: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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.

EDMUND

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.

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24 comments

  1. Wonderful post, Mike. Thank you for the historical enlightening. Far from the Great Lakes growing up in the western U.S. and with little sense of the geography, time frame, or background of the story being told, we still had a strong emotional reaction to this song, Gordon Lightfoot truly captured the humanity and tragedy of this event in a way that reached everybody. Lightfoot holds a special place for me; “Sundown” was one of the first 45s I ever actively sought out and bought with my own allowance at 10 years old in 1974, and I happily still have that 7″. He is truly a North American treasure! smile, see what I did (usurped) there….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love Sundown! That 45 would be a treasure. I think he ended up re-recording a lot of his early hits too.

      Glad you enjoyed this. Sometimes you just gotta write about something you’re passionate about.

      Like

  2. This song gives me chills too. Many times, while at the cottage, we will remark at how the lake can be so fierce and what must it have been like for those sailors. This is my favourite Lightfoot song and he wrote a lot of good songs. He was nominated for a Grammy for this one. He should have won!
    Thanks for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A fine post Mike – right up there with Nautical Disaster on any list of shipwreck songs.
    I was at a local Kingston theatre production last night, Mr. Lightfoot was the music before the curtain. No Edmund FItzgerald, but good to hear Gordie all the same!

    Like

  4. This brings me back to grade school. My first example of a song affecting me emotionally. I can remember that day like it was yesterday. Possibly the only song that could silence a room full of bratty, snot nosed punks. I remember the teacher bringing in the turntable and dropping the needle. From the first note I was hooked. The guitar work was twangy and brilliant, and for a kid in a house filled with country music, this was a different, and enjoyable change. I looked over at my teacher and I could see her wiping away tears.
    I can’t remember what I had for lunch on Tuesday, but I can remember that day just fine. One of a few songs that have such an emotional, but yet very enjoyable affect on me, back to a simpler, more fun time of playing, having fun, and no stress.
    Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I got to finally see Gordon last year at an outdoor festival. I had heard for years his voice was gone, and he didn’t havr what it.took anymore.
    I will tell you, he was on his A game the day I saw him, and his voice sounded AWESOME for his age. So happy I got to finally see him.
    Every Canadian should see him at least once.
    He’s right up there with Stompin’ Tom for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really glad that I saw Gordie. Lulu’s blew my chance to see Stompin’ Tom — they became the first and only venue to ever cancel a Stompin’ Tom show. Very sad.

      Like

  6. I live on the shore of Georgian Bay (which has more than its fair share of wrecks), and we summered every year just around the bend from Kincardine in Port Elgin. Hell, that’s where we got married! And I think there’s something life-defining about being surrounded by so much water. We’re very fortunate to have it, as my Dad always told me, to have some of the world’s largest bodies of fresh water. He (a scientist) is always disgusted at the pollution.

    I spent most of my life heading for that shore. It was so weird when we lived in Saskatchewan and were, essentially, landlocked. It just didn’t feel right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you and I are in-tune on this one. I don’t think I would have liked the feeling of being landlocked. Ever since I was a kid, I loved water — rivers especially, with bridges. That was my thing. I always made my dad stop the car at this on specific bridge so I could have a good look. If I slept past the bridge and missed it, I made sure I didn’t miss it on the way home!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love the water too, and bridges. The best are draw bridges. I also love locks.
        We rented a house boat years ago and took it through the locks around Peterborough. So, so cool when you are in a lock in a boat. Possibly the best vacation ever. Sleeping out on the water was cool. Except when a tornado shows up. Luckily it wasn’t too close to us, but we were all shitting our pants when the sky went as black as night and we high tailed it for the back side of an island just in case.
        Still was so fun.

        Like

      2. Yup. It gets into the blood. Same as just about every person I ever met from down east – if they ain’t near the ocean, something just ain’t right! :)

        Man, I’ve been going to the beach on Lake Huron since BEFORE I was born.

        Like

  7. I’ve a memory of Rheostatics and this song. I think it was in the On A Cold Road book? Anyway, something about how if a crowd was being unruly, they used to play this song at them, in its entirety. Have a history lesson, you animals! haha!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. This article, about that book of Bidini’s I read and reviewed, has some Edmund Fitzgerald stories in it too:

        http://www.cp24.com/former-rheostatics-singer-writes-book-about-lightfoot-1.717385

        Like this:

        In the text, Bidini offers a couple of theories for Lightfoot’s non-participation. Years ago, the Rheostatics covered “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and Bidini and his bandmates thought the Orillia, Ont., country-folk legend might have liked their version.

        So they directed it to Lightfoot’s manager at the time, Barry Harvey, who has since died. Bidini remembers Harvey telling him that he wouldn’t give the song to Lightfoot because it would just annoy the singer. The group was disappointed, and some time later, Bidini slighted Lightfoot in an interview, suggesting that the Canuck icon had swiped the melody for “Fitzgerald” from an old Irish folk tune (Bidini himself heard this rumour at a pub in Cork, Ireland). Harvey asked for a retraction and Bidini agreed, but says that once the comments had hit the Internet, it was too late.

        So, the two artists weren’t exactly friends. Still, Bidini believes the primary reason Lightfoot didn’t want to participate in the book is that the songwriting stalwart simply has no interest in revisiting the still-tender wounds of his past.

        Like

  8. This is a really great piece of writing, Mike. Truly. I’m not familiar with much of Lightfoot’s stuff, so not surprising that I’m not familiar with this particular track or the story behind it. I’ll be sure to get familiar with it, though … and more of Mr. Lightfoot’s stuff!

    Like

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