American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

EDMUND FITZGERALD. The Great Lakes* bulk freighter Edmund Fitzgerald (built 1958) has assumed an unparalleled position in the folklore of the inland seas. Throughout the history of the navigation of the Great Lakes, ships have been lost with all hands under conditions that were seemingly inexplicable. The Edmund Fitzgerald is the most recent example.

At 7:00 p.m., 10 November 1975, the 729-foot Edmund Fitzgerald sank approximately fifteen miles northwest of Whitefish Point, Lake Superior. The freighter was bound from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, with a cargo of iron ore pellets. The weather was horrible, with some mariners describing it as hurricane conditions. On the open Lake, winds exceeded ninety miles per hour, and waves crested at thirty-five feet. The Fitzgerald plunged so quickly that there was not even time for a radio distress call. Search and rescue efforts were fruitless. There were no survivors or witnesses to the tragedy; twenty-nine men perished with the vessel. Only a small amount of wreckage was found, and none of the victims’ bodies were recovered. Detailed investigations by both the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board failed to satisfactorily explain the loss.

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald has become the best known of an estimated 9,000 Great Lakes shipwrecks.* Canadian* folksinger Gordon Lightfoot wrote of it in his popular ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976). It is the subject of a novel by Joan Skelton, The Survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1985), as well as the topic of The Gales of November by Robert J. Hemming (1981), a book combining the factual account of the loss with fictionalized crew interplay during the final trip. The evocative play Ten November* (1986) by Steven Dietz also takes the Fitzgerald as its main subject. The Fitzgerald has been the topic of numerous nonfiction books, periodical articles, and videotapes. Several expeditions using high-technology diving equipment have filmed the wreck extensively, and there has been considerable controversy regarding not only the actual cause of loss but also the issue of leaving the wreck as an underwater grave site.

Fitzgerald has become part of the fabric of Great Lakes legend and lore. When sailors gather and talk of the Lakes, invariably the Fitzgerald will come up, with the question of where they were the night she sank. To the men and women of the Lakes, Fitzgerald is still a current event, not something to be considered history. To them, it is a chilling reminder of the everpresent danger of sailing the Great Lakes.

Frederick Stonehouse