Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mystery History - The Edmund Fitzgerald and the Witch of November

It was forty years ago today that the Edmund Fitzgerald, carrying 26,000 tons of iron ore, floundered and sank just north of White Fish Bay on Lake Superior, taking with it 29 sailors. There were no survivors. To this day, the exact cause of the sinking remains unknown.

It was not the first ship to sink on Lake Superior, nor the last. Storms are common on Lake Superior in winter, and the weather turns ugly in fall. Not for nothing is this period referred to as the "witch of November", when winds approaching hurricane force winds rage across the Great Lakes.  In the past three centuries, over 10,000 vessels have sunk on the Great Lakes, with 30,000 lives lost. 40 % of these wrecks occur in November, more than any other month.

But no one could have conceived this fate would befall the Edmund Fitzgerald. Known as the "Queen of the Great Lakes", the Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the largest ore freighters ever built, 729 feet long. It had made hundreds of trips across the lakes in all types of weather. Launched in 1958, the ship had set cargo haul records six years out of 17 that she plied the lakes. The captain, Ernest M. McSorley, was an experienced pilot.

Another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, was following the Edmund Fitzgerald that night and received several radio messages from her. They had taken on water, but their pumps were keeping up, and the ship was holding its own. The winds were gusting up to 86 miles per hour and the waves topped 35 feet. At 7:10 PM, both ships were in radio contact but at 7:15 PM the Arthur M. Anderson lost radar contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald. The radio operator on the Anderson tried to contact the Fitzgerald, but there was no response. It was the last anyone ever hear from the ill fated ship. No distress signal was sent.

By 8 PM the Arthur M. Anderson had contacted the Coast Guard and reached port in Whitefish Bay. The Edmund Fitzgerald had not, and a massive search was soon underway. Several life jackets and other debris were found, but no crew members.

On November 14th the U.S. Navy discovered the Edmund Fitzgerald in 530 feet of water about 15 miles west of Deadman's Cove. In the past thirty years several dives with submersible equipment have surveyed the wreckage, but to this day, the exact cause of the sinking remains a mystery.

On July 4th, 1995 the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald was brought to the surface. It now rests in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. A replica copy of the bell, inscribed with the names of the lost crew, was taken down to the wreck and placed in the pilothouse, as a grave marker.

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