Today on Museum Bites we’re wrapping up our tour through the Valley Camp Museum Ship with a deep dive into the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Loaded with iron ore and bound for a steel mill near Detroit, this massive freighter was torn apart in a violent storm and sank on November 10, 1975. Captain Ernest McSorley and all 28 crew members perished. Join me for a brief look at artifacts recovered from this fateful ship, and the story they tell about this tragic event. We begin with the Mighty Fitz’s lifeboats…
Mighty Fitz Fact #1: The Edmund Fitzgerald has been immortalized in song and Great Lakes lore. Click on this Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald link and listen to singer, Gordon Lightfoot’s tribute to the Mighty Fitz and her crew.
Mangled: Ripped from the Mighty Fitz when it sank, the lifeboats are perhaps the most haunting artifacts recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lifeboat #2 washed ashore 12 miles north of the wreckage at Mamainse Point, Ontario. Battered and bruised, this boat looks like it was bludgeoned by Thor’s hammer.
Lifeboat #1 suffered even more abuse. Discovered nine miles northeast of the wreckage, the back end was torn off and the boat’s metal shell was peeled and twisted like it was made of tin foil. On display in a separate and somber room, the names, ages, occupations, and hometowns of each crew member are listed on a wall, in silent remembrance. Sitting center stage in this darkened room, this mangled lifeboat is a chilling reminder of the brutality wrought by the storm.
Mighty Fitz Fact#2: The Ontario Police recovered a section of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s life ring, 7 months after it sank.
Crushed: Our next artifacts related to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald are two massive buoys used by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to mark the site of the wreckage. Within days of the accident, sonar readings indicated two massive pieces of metal were lying at the bottom of Lake Superior, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The following spring, buoys were set in place to mark the location of the wreckage in order for the USCG to launch the CURV III submersible, a cable-controlled underwater recovery vehicle. Film and photos captured by the CURV III confirmed everyone’s worst fears. The Mighty Fitz lay at the bottom of Lake Superior, broken into two with its stern flipped upside down.
At one point during the CURV III mission, the wind became so intense it drove the buoys underwater, plunging them 250 feet beneath the surface. The water pressure at this depth is 10 times higher than on the surface and the resulting force crushed the buoys like a child’s toy. The damage is yet another reminder of the severe conditions on this greatest of lakes. Note, the wreckage site of the Edmund Fitzgerald is located 535 feet beneath Lake Superior more than twice as deep as these crumpled buoys.
Great Lake Facts: Lake Superior (aka Gitche Gumee) is cold, dark, deep, and riddled with shipwrecks. The northernmost and largest of the five Great Lakes, it measures 383 miles from east to west by 161 miles north to south and is 1,333 feet at its deepest.
Clamor: Our final artifact was retrieved from the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1995, at the request of the crew’s families. Weighing 200 lbs., the Mighty Fitz’s bronze bell is a memorial to the crew and on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
After the USCG’s confirmation of the Mighty Fitz’s demise, there have been several expeditions to the wreckage site. During a dive in 1994, one of the crew was found in the bow section, wearing a lifejacket. The families of the deceased subsequently petitioned the Canadian government (the Mighty Fitz sank in Canadian waters) to limit access to the Edmund Fitzgerald out of respect for the crew and their gravesite.
Distress: There are many theories, but no conclusive evidence to determine why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Hull damage? Hatch failure? Monstrous seas? Or some tragic combination? At one point during the storm, Captain McSorley commented these were the “worst seas he’d ever sailed in.” Wind gusts of up to 70-75 knots (80-86 mph) were reported with waves between 18-25 feet.
As the storm progressed, the Edmund Fitzgerald headed toward Whitefish Point in an effort to escape the storm. McSorley reported both radars were down, water was coming in, the freighter was listing, water pumps were up and running, but, “We are holding our own”. The freighter, Arthur M. Anderson was several miles behind the Edmund Fitzgerald and had been in regular radio contact with the Mighty Fitz. Captain Cooper later reported how two enormous waves overwhelmed the Anderson, crashing along the deck, over the top of the pilothouse, and submerging the bow.
Then the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water – barrooff – just like a big dog. Another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake toward the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.
~ Captain Bernie Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson
The storm continued to worsen and the Mighty Fitz abruptly disappeared from the Anderson’s radar. No distress call had been sent.
In April of 1977, the USCG released a report indicating the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was caused by, “massive flooding of the cargo hold” caused by “ineffective hatch closures as boarding seas rolled along the spar deck”. Some have vigorously denied these findings. If you’d like to learn more about the details of the Mighty Fitz’s final voyage, click on this Edmund Fitzgerald Fateful Journey link, courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
That concludes our tour through Valley Camp Museum Ship. Next week, I’ll be back with more Museum Bites. Until then, have a fantastic week!
Cover photo by Myriam Zilles, courtesy of Pixabay.
United States Naval Underwater Sea Museum
YouTube: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald