Edmund Fitzgerald #MysteryMonday

Hey, everyone. Time for another Mystery Monday. The events leading to today’s post began forty-five years ago today. While the whereabouts of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald isn’t a mystery, what caused the sinking of the freighter is. Interested? Read on.


In 1976, fresh out of high school, I had a part-time job that required me to arrive at work in the early morning. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do for a teenager. You might expect I listened to music on my morning drive. Back then, you could almost set your clock by songs. Every day at the nearly same time, I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The haunting ballad quickly became one of my favorites. I don’t recall when I first learned Lightfoot based his song on an actual event, but I soon became fascinated with the story of the ship.

The Edmund Fitzgerald in 1971

Here’s what we know. On November 9, 1975, The Fitzgerald, under the command of veteran sailor Ernest M. McSorley, left Superior, Wisconsin, with a cargo of 26,000 tons of iron ore. Its destination was a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan. She joined another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson bound for Gary, Indiana with Captain Jesse B. (Bernie) Cooper at the helm.

The National Weather Service (NWS) predicted a storm would pass to the south. But by seven that evening, they revived the forecast and issued gale warnings for all of Lake Superior. With two experienced captains at the helm, the Fitzgerald and the Anderson altered their course northward, seeking shelter along the Ontario shore.

At 1:00 a.m. on November 10, the ships encountered a winter storm. The Fitzgerald reported fifty-two knot (sixty mph) winds.  The NWS upgraded its warnings from gale to storm, forecasting winds of 35–50 knots (40–58 mph).

Shortly after 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson to report the Edmund Fitzgerald was taking on water, had lost two vent covers, and a fence railing. Around 4:10, he radioed again to report a radar failure, stated the ship had a “bad list,” and he was taking heavy seas over the deck.

By late afternoon, sustained winds of over fifty knots were recorded across eastern Lake Superior. The Anderson logged sustained winds as high as fifty-eight knots and reported some waves as high as thirty-five feet.

The last communication with the Fitzgerald was approximately 7:10 p.m. when Captain Cooper of the Anderson asked how she was doing.

McSorley reported, “We are holding our own.” Minutes later, the ship sank. There was no distress signal sent. The Anderson lost radio contact and the crew could not see the Fitzgerald on radar.

Searchers recovered debris, including lifeboats and rafts, but didn’t find any trace of the twenty-nine-man crew.

In May 1976, the U.S. Navy conducted a dive on the wreck site using an unmanned submersible, and discovered the ship lying 530 feet below the surface. It had broken into two parts. In between the two broken sections was a large mass of taconite pellets and scattered wreckage, including hatch covers and hull plating.

In 1980, during a Lake Superior research dive expedition, marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau, sent two divers from the RV Calypso in the first manned submersible dive to Edmund Fitzgerald. The dive team drew no final conclusions, they speculated the ship had broken up on the surface.

A third dive occurred in 1989, and a fourth in 1994. Family members of the Fitzgerald’s crew requested a halt to all dives to the wreck, stating it was the burial place for the twenty-nine men. However, they asked for one more dive—to recover the ship’s bell.

Divers recovered the bell in 1995 and placed another bell containing the names of the twenty-nine men on the ship.

There are several theories regarding what may have caused the wreck.

  • Faulty hatch covers. (Research and expeditions have disproved this initial theory.)
  • Bottoming out. This could have happened in an area called Six Fathom Shoal. Captain Cooper supported this theory.
  • A wave pushed the front of the ship underwater. The ship then hit ground. This could explain why the two sections of the ship are close to one another.
  • Previous structural damage.
  • Huge waves swamped the ship, causing it to sink. Many people call these waves “The Three Sisters.”
  • A wave snapped the ship in half before in sank.

There have been over six thousand wrecks on the Great Lakes, but none as famous as that of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It’s said interest in this shipwreck is second only to the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

What do you think? Waves, structural damage, bottoming out, hatch covers? Share your thoughts below, then enjoy the Gordon Lightfoot tune.

32 comments

  1. This is a compelling story, Joan. The idea of drowning is rather awful for me. I always remember the scenes in Titanic when the ship was sinking. Shudder! I actually thought you were on a blogging break this month, so I was pleased to see posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me, the thought of drowning is horrible as well. I too cringed at scenes in Titanic.

      Not really on a blogging break, although I’ve been working hard at writing, so I haven’t been around social media and visiting as much.

      Thanks for stopping by, Robbie. I’m glad you found the post intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love mystery Monday! For those of us not from the USA it is hard to imagine the vastness of the Great Lakes, more an inland sea! So many shipwrecks. When we were in junior school we had to imagine a trip to another country; one of the girls popped over the Atlantic and completed her story with ‘…and in the afternoon we rowed across the Great Lakes.’ I can’t imagine what happened, but it is strange not even a single body was found.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoy these posts. I love doing them as well. They do take some research which is why I’ve cut back to once a month. (There’s a bonus post this month because I had it ready last November then took a month off from blogging.)

      Anyway, the Great Lakes are huge. I live in the southern part of the US and haven’t seen any of them, but visiting that part of the country is on my bucket list. It is strange that they didn’t find any bodies. The door of the wheelhouse was open when they found the wreck. I suspect most of them are buried beneath the iron ore the ship was carrying.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my favorite Gordon Lightfoot songs. I remember there being controversy over playing it because it exceeded the standard 3 minute song. But radio played it anyway. I’d say there was maybe a combination of things that caused the sinking of the ship. But I’m no sailor. 🙂 Great post, Joan!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had almost forgotten about that. Don’t know why radio stations hesitated to play longer songs. (Light My Fire and Hey Jude were a couple that broke the mold.) I can remember when stations bleeped certain words of songs as well.

      I agree, I think a combination of things caused the sinking. I’m still intrigued by it after all these years.

      Like

  4. Super post, Joan. I, too, have been fascinated with the Edmond Fitzgerald and this rundown of possibilities of the cause was terrific. I can only imagine, given the captain’s experience, that there was a totally unexpected structural failure. Otherwise, the crew would have taken to lifeboats. Three sisters is my guess. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It must have happened suddenly since the captain stated they were holding their own only to sink minutes later. The Three Sisters certainly makes sense, especially if the ship was already taking on water.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up not far from Lake Erie or if it’s because I love the song, but I find the story fascinating. And another mystery we’ll never know the answer to. Great post, Joan. A the perfect day to share it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve watched some recent documentaries in which they say we have the technology available today that probably could solve the mystery. But out of respect to the families and the men who died, they won’t dive again. And when it comes down to it, knowing what happened won’t bring the men back to life.

      I’ve been fascinated with this story for years.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Gosh, I hadn’t heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald until your post. What a perplexing set of events! So sad…and still a mystery. Thank you for sharing this, Joan.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for sharing this history, Joan. I always liked this song, but I never knew the story behind it. I’m surprised by the date of 1975. I would have thought it was earlier…very interesting. Of course, this song will be in my head the remainder of the day. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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