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40 years later, we're still captivated by the Edmund Fitzgerald

Nov 11, 2015

Of the thousands of shipwrecks that fill the Great Lakes, most people can name only one: the Edmund Fitzgerald.

It’s the last and the largest ship ever lost on the lakes.

This week marks 40 years since the Fitzgerald and its 29 crew members went down in Lake Superior.

But even this many years later, the story still captivates the public’s imagination.


“His love was the Great Lakes”

Robert Rafferty wasn’t even supposed to be on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship’s usual cook didn’t want to make the journey. His replacement got bleeding ulcers at the last minute, so Rafferty joined the crew.

His daughter, Pam Johnson, says he’d sailed all over the world.

“Bombay, India; Alexandria, Egypt. I mean, he’d just been all over the place, but his love was the Great Lakes,” Johnson says.

Johnson remembers her dad as a “jolly” man who loved pulling pranks and baking.

“Good baker,” she says. “He spent a lot of times, in the wintertime, going to school. And we’d come home, and we’d get to eat all that stuff, his French pastries and everything.”

In November of 1975, the shipping season was just about to wrap up. Robert Rafferty was heading home to Toledo, Ohio for the winter.

“He sent a postcard to my mom, 'should be home by the eighth or ninth; however, nothing is certain,'” Johnson says.

“That’s the last we heard.”

A story of two ships

On November 9th, the Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin.

At 729 feet long, it was one of the largest ships on the Great Lakes at that time. Its cargo: iron ore pellets, bound for Detroit’s industrial Zug Island.

(See a story map of the Fitzgerald's last journey from the Detroit News here.)

“The cargo weighed 26,116 tons,” says Steve Mrozek is a manager at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Detroit’s Belle Isle. An exhibit there lays out the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

It’s actually the story of two ships.

As the Edmund Fitzgerald headed out into Lake Superior, it was joined by another freighter, the Arthur Anderson (which, amazingly, is still in service on the Great Lakes).

Mrozek says most of what we know about the Fitzgerald’s last days comes from radio communications between Fitzgerald captain Ernest McSorley, and the Anderson’s captain Bernie Cooper.

The two ships knew they were headed out into bad weather, though exactly how bad didn’t become clear until later. Mrozek says that by the afternoon of the 10th the Fitzgerald was in trouble.

“We do know that the Edmund Fitzgerald lost its radar. It was knocked out,” Mrozek says. “So the Arthur Anderson, which was following close behind it, was relaying course information to McSorley on the Fitz.”

Both ships were trying to get to Whitefish Bay. It sits just to the west of Sault Saint Marie and the Soo Locks.

Whitefish Bay meant safety from the storm churning over Lake Superior. It was battering ships with gale-force winds and waves over 30-feet high.

Around seven o’clock that evening, Mrozek says the two ships hit a snow squall.

“And what the snow squall did is, it created clutter on the radar screen,” Mrozek says. “You couldn’t see anything. And then when it dissipated, there was no longer any radar contact where the Fitzgerald was.”

On the Anderson, Captain Cooper alerted the Coast Guard. He then radioed other ships in the area to find out if any of them had seen the Fitzgerald come into Whitefish Bay. None had.

“So at that particular point Cooper went back, contacted the Coast Guard, and declared an emergency,” Mrozek says. “The Edmund Fitzgerald was missing.”

A lingering mystery, captured in song

Mrozek says that archived radio communications between Captain Cooper of the Anderson, Captain Don Erickson of the William Clay Ford (then docked at Whitefish Bay), and Coast Guard are the best forensic evidence we have about the events surrounding the Fitzgerald’s sinking.

“No, I didn’t have him [McSorley/Fitzgerald] visually. I had him on the radar. He was exactly 10 miles ahead of us,” Captain Cooper tells the Coast Guard at one point.

“The last time I talked with him, he said he was holding his own. And that was the last time. I lost contact after that.”

When it became clear the Edmund Fitzgerald had likely sunk, the Coast Guard had no way to launch its own rescue. So it asked other ships in Whitefish Bay to go back out into Lake Superior and do that. Only two agreed.

“And both the Anderson and the William Clay Ford went out into the storm to look for possible survivors,” Mrozek says. “Nothing was ever found. There was no boat there, no crew members, nothing.”

Part of the lingering mystery surrounding the Edmund Fitzgerald is how quickly it sank—and what exactly caused it to go down.

Mrozek says there are competing theories. But since the boat lies in two large pieces at the bottom of Lake Superior, we’ll likely never know for sure.

The history of Great Lakes shipping is full of such tragedies. The lakes hold an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks that have claimed up to 30,000 lives.

“But the Edmund Fitzgerald being the last, and the largest--and also having a song about [it]--has captured the imagination of people everywhere,” Mrozek says.

“Everywhere around the world, they know about the loss and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Yes, the song.

There’s no doubt that Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s six-and-a-half minute ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald played a huge part embedding the tragedy in the public consciousness.

Pam Johnson, daughter of Fitzgerald cook Robert Rafferty, holds a letter from Gordon Lightfoot at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Johnson says that at first, she had a strained an ambivalent relationship to the song. But that’s changed for her and other Fitzgerald families.

“We’re all in love with Gordon Lightfoot,” Johnson says. “He, to me, will always be a family member.”

Johnson says her relationship to the Edmund Fitzgerald itself has evolved in much the same way.

At first, she wanted little to do with the public spectacle, and remembrance ceremonies that popped up around the Great Lakes every year in November.

But over time, Johnson has come to embrace them. She says if she’s able, she’ll make the rounds to remember her dad on the Fitzgerald’s 50th anniversary, too.