Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Legend Lives On From the Chippewa On Down

Category: History

On November 10, 1975 the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing all 29 aboard.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company in Milwaukee and was named for the company's CEO. It was launched in 1958.

On November 10, 1975, the ship encountered a heavy storm while en route from Wisconsin to Detroit (not Cleveland, as the Lightfoot song says; however, many of the sailors aboard were residents of Cleveland). The captain's last transmission said they were "holding their own" in the storm. Approximately ten minutes later, "they might have split up or they might have capsized, they may have broke deep and took water." While the theories are numerous, the fact remains the ship sank -- and quickly.

It was not the worst shipwreck in Great Lakes history (the Algoma, which sank in November 1885, claimed between 37 and 48 lives; Alpena's sinking in October 1880 took an estimated 100 lives); and, had it not been for Gordon Lightfoot, the November 10th anniversary would just be a sad anniversary for the families of those who perished.

However, the legendary folk icon recorded a song about the disaster for his Summertime Dream album in 1976. At six minutes in length and with a detailed, grim account of the events of the ship's sinking, it hardly seemed destined to be a song for the ages. However, Reprise Records released the song as a single in the fall of 1976, and it quickly became a major hit. (The song eventually reached #2 on the Billboard pop singles chart.)

As a result of the popularity of the song, the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy went from "one of many" to "the most famous. The Weather Channel has a segment every year explaining the details of the Lake Superior storm that caused the wreck of the ship. The Discovery Channel has produced a show on shipwrecks in general, with the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald being the centerpiece.

Superior they said never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

The homepage of the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial site
Edmund Fitzgerald Information from The Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Bay, Michigan

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