People forget that the Great Lakes of North America are among the busiest waterways in the world, and that some truly great ships have plied them. One of the mightiest was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which was lost in a tragic accident 38 years ago today, on November 10, 1975. Although it didn’t happen on the ocean, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic song, ranks right up there with the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Arctic as one of the most memorable maritime disasters of all time.

Just because it sailed on lakes rather than the ocean, don’t get the idea that the Edmund Fitzgerald wasn’t an amazingly big ship. Indeed, at the time of her launch in June 1958 she was the largest ship so far to travel on the Great Lakes. She was 729 feet long and over 13,000 tons, and also had a very distinctive profile, with superstructure on bow and stern but low in the middle. The Fitzgerald, named after the president of the life insurance company that financed her construction, was built to haul iron ore from mines in Minnesota to various ports on the Great Lakes. This she did admirably for almost 20 years. She was also known as a very accommodating and comfortable ship, even luxurious by cargo ship standards. She occasionally carried paying passengers, and evidently the “clamdigger” punch served in the galley was famous in the Lakes region.

On November 9, 1975, the Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin with a full hold of iron ore bound for a port near Detroit. Although a storm was brewing nearby, the National Weather Service predicted it would pass by the Fitzgerald’s usual route along Lake Superior. The storm turned out to be much worse than expected. Winds were 60 miles an hour and the waves on the lake were crashing at 10 feet. The Fitzgerald passed several other ships during the night and next day, and was in radio communication with them. The captain, Ernest McSorley, radioed to another mariner that these were the worst seas he had ever encountered.

fitzgerald 2This lifeboat from the Edmund Fitzgerald was found during one of the initial searches for the ship, and is now preserved in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

At 7:10 PM on November 10, another ship called the Fitzgerald to find out how she was doing. The captain reportedly said, “We are holding our own.” That was the last anyone ever heard from the ship. No distress signal was sent. The ship was simply gone, probably sunk minutes after that last transmission. A few days later a U.S. Navy survey plane located the wreck. The Edmund Fitzgerald was lying in two pieces on the bottom of Lake Superior, 530 feet down. A total of 29 people had been aboard her, and no survivors were found.

What exactly sank the Edmund Fitzgerald remains a subject of dispute to this day; entire books have been written on the subject. The possible causes range from rogue waves to improperly-fitting covers on the cargo hatches to striking a previously unknown shoal. In researching this article I came to favor the theory that the ship had a fundamental design defect. Her hull was welded, not riveted, which was unusual for a ship of that length constructed at the time, and former crew members said that the Fitzgerald’s hull flexed and bent like a diving board in heavy seas. The stress of the storm waves could have caused a massive structural failure–the ship simply broke in half. Curiously, the owners of the Arthur B. Homer, the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sister ship, permanently mothballed her only five years after the disaster–some said due to fear of a structural failure of exactly this kind. The Homer never sailed again.

Of the 29 men who lost their lives in the disaster, the body of only one was ever found–discovered in a 1994 deep diving expedition to the wreck site. In 1995 the ship’s bell was salvaged and placed on permanent display in a museum. The ship and its lost crew have become famous in local folklore. The Great Lakes Brewing Company even puts out a commemorative Edmund Fitzgerald beer.

The most famous memorial, of course, is the Gordon Lightfoot folk song, originally recorded in 1976. The song has since been covered by many musical groups including the Dandy Warhols. Here is the original, commemorating the shipwreck that has come to be known as the “Titanic of the Great Lakes.”

The photo at the top of this article is by photographer “Greenmars,” used/relicensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of the lifeboat is by Flickr user Damian Entwhistle, used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.