Saturday, November 12, 2011

Edmund Fitgerald

  This past Thursday marked the 36th anniversary of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The S.S Edmund Fitzgerald was an American freighter that made headlines after sinking in Lake Superior on November 10,1975, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan with the entire crew of 29 men going down with her. The crew consisted of the captain,the first, second and third mates, five engineers,three oilers, a cook, a wiper ( the junior crew member of the ship's engine room), three watchman, two maintenance men,three deckhands, two porters, a cadet, three wheelsmen, and a steward. Most of the crew were from Wisconsin and Ohio, ranging in age from the 21 year old deckhand Mark Andrew Thomas to the 63 year old Captain Ernest M. McSorely, who was planning his retirement.

When launched on June 8,1958, she was the largest boat on the Great Lakes and the Edmund Fitzgerald suffered a series of mishaps during her launch: it took three attempts to break the champagne bottle used in her christening, which is bad luck in and of itself, but then she collided with a pier when she entered the water.The ship was nicknamed "Fitz", "Big Fitz" and the "Mighty Fitz. The Edmund Fitzgerald still remains the largest boat to ever sink in the Great Lakes.

For 17 year "Fitz" carried taconite ( an iron-bearing, very fine-grained ,tough rock) from mines near Duluth, Minnesota, to iron works in Detroit, Toledo and other ports. As a "workhorse" she set a seasonal haul records 6 different times, often beating her own record. Her size, record-breaking performance and "DJ captain" endeared her to bota watchers. Captain Peter Pulcer was known for piping music over the ship's intercomsystem while passing through the Dtroit and St. Clair rivers and entertaining spectators at Sault Locks with running commentary about the ship.

 With McSorely at the helm  that fateful day,the Edmund Fitzgerald embarked on her final journey from Superior, Wisconsin, on June 9,1975, to a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan. En route she joined another freighter ship the "SS Arthur M. Anderson". By the next day the two ships were caught up in a massive winter storm,with near hurricane force winds and 35 feet high waves. At about 7:10 pm the Edmund Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian waters about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, at a depth of 530 feet.Even though the ship had been having troubles earlier in her voyage no distress signal was ever made before she sank. None of the ship's crew bodies were ever recovered.

 There have been many theories, books, studies and expeditions have studied the cause of the sinking, ranging from rogue waves, structural failure, being swamped with water entering through her cargo hatches or deck, damage to her topside to being shoaled (from what I can figure out, running up onto a sandbar) in a shallow part of Lake Superior. Investigations into the sinking have lead to changes in Great lakes shipping regulations and practices including mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard ( the distance from the water level to the upper deck level) and more frequent inspections of vessels.

 At the request of surviving family members of the crew, the 200 pound bronze bell of the Fitzgerald was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society on July 4,1995. This expedition was done by the National Geographic Society, the Canadian Navy, Sony Corporation and the Sault San Marie Tribe of the Chippewa Indians. The bell is now on display at the Great lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to her lost crew. Personal note: I remember seeing a documentary about the recovery of Edmund Fitzgerald's bell. The ships bell that was brought up was replaced by another bell with the names of the crew members etched on it. The one thing that stuck with me the most is that a daughter of one of them saw a butterfly just as the replacement bell was being lowered, which is an odd thing because butterflies don't usually go that far out. Plus when the ships bell was coming to the water's surface the replacement bell broke from its rope and dropped into the water on its own.

 Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot made it the subject of his 1976 hit ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald". Lightfoot considers this to be his best work. It originally appeared on his 1976 album Summertime Dream and was later released as a single.The song hit #1 in Lightfoot's native Canada on November 20, 1976, almost exactly 1a year after the sinking of the ship that inspired it. In America the song went to #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks making it Lightfoot's second most successful single ( in terms of chart position) in that country. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" peaked at #40 on the U.K. Singles chart. So the 35th anniversary of the song is approaching.

 The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
 of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee'.
 The lake it is said never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
 With a load of iron ore weighing twenty-six thousand tons more
 Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weigh empty,
 That good ship and true was a boned to be chewed
 When the "Gales of November" came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
 Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
 As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
with a crew and captain well seasoned,
 Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
 And later that night when the ship's bell rang
 Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
 And a wave broke over the railing.
 And ev'ry man knew as the captain did too
 'twas the witch of November come stealin'.
The dawn came late and breakfast had to wait
 When the Gales of November com slashin'.
 When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
 in the face of hurricane west wind.

 When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin'
 "Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya."
At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said
 "Fellas it's been good o know ya!"
 The captian wired he had water comin' in
 and the good ship and crew was in peril.
 And later that night when he lights went outta sight
 came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

 Does any one know where the love of God goes
 when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
 The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
 if they put up fifteen more miles behind 'er.
 They might have split up or they might have capsized 
 they may have broke deep and took water.
 And all that remains is the faces and the names
 of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

 Lake Huron rolls Superior sings
 in the room of her ice-wter mansion.
 Old Michigan streams like a young man's dream
 the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
 And farther below Lake Onterio
 takes in what lake Erie can send her.
 And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
 with the Gales of November remebered.

 In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
 in the "Maritime Sailor's Cathedral".
 The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
 for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald".

 The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumme"
 "Superior" they said "never gives up her dead
when the Gales of November come early!"

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