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In the beginning she was known, simply, as Hull 301. Powered by a Westinghouse double-reduction, cross-compound steam turbine with two coal-fired water-tube boilers, she measured 729 feet in length. Launched in River Rouge in 1958, her most fateful journey occurred 17 years later when, loaded with 26,116 tons of taconite ore pellets, she headed for Toledo before encountering 70-knot winds and 25-foot waves.

The Great Lakes freighter known as the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank 40 years ago Tuesday, launching one of the greatest maritime mysteries of all time and inspiring the greatest shipping song of the modern age.

This disaster at the distended thumb of Lake Superior permitted the phrase “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to replace “The Wreck of the Hesperus” in North American seafaring folklore.

Indeed, the displacement of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Gordon Lightfoot, and the disappearance of Longfellow’s 1842 Hesperus poem (“Colder and louder blew the wind,/A gale from the Northeast,/The snow fell hissing in the brine,/And the billows frothed like yeast,” lines once memorized by American schoolchildren) from the American canon, are only two indications of the immense cultural power possessed by the destruction, in Canadian waters 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Mich., of a lake bulk freighter with 29 souls aboard.

The wonder is that the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, traveling on compass course 141 degrees toward the locks at Sault Ste Marie, has persisted in our culture. There have been more than 8,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes — an average of one every 11 days — in the last 250 years, many with far greater losses of life than the vessel known as the Mighty Fitz or, because of its favored route, the Toledo Express.

But the Great Lakes themselves have a special romance, and a special place in our history. Created in the glacial ice age 12,000 years ago, they were the setting for great dramas in American and Canadian history: the search for a route to China; the travels of the fur traders and the missionaries; the early settlements; the recurrent conflicts, with the Indians and, later, the British; the poetic development of the Erie Canal and the prosaic development of the St. Lawrence Seaway; and the daring rum-running of Prohibition.

A decade ago the Canadian government, regarding the area where the ship now rests in only 530 feet of water as a gravesite, restricted access to the two segments of the Edmund Fitzgerald, one part, 275 feet long, facing the lake surface, the other, about 253 feet long, facing the lake bottom.

Very little has been recovered, though an orange life raft and a round rescue ring are on display at the sparkling new National Museum of the Great Lakes here in Toledo. The museum has run programs all summer and fall on the Edmund Fitzgerald, reflecting its status as, in the words of James Lundgren, the museum’s director of operations, “one of the great mysteries of the Great Lakes.”

Today the speculation revolves around whether the Edmund Fitzgerald, once one of the largest freighters to ply the Great Lakes, collided with an underwater mountain range, or whether the boat was compromised by debris, or whether the hatches, or the hatch covers, were damaged. Whatever the answer, weather played an important role.

It is true, as Lightfoot has said, that “as the big freighters go, it was bigger than most, with a crew and good captain well seasoned.” None of that mattered when it slipped from the Burlington-Northern Railroad dock in Superior, Wis., at dawn.

The Fitz traveled with another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson. Soon, a cold front swept through from Canada, changing the weather and the fate of the two vessels, which became separated in the wind and cold rain.

The Anderson’s captain reported that the waves “that came across buried my entire deck in about 12 feet of water.” There was no radio communication with the Edmund Fitzgerald after Capt. Ernest M. McSorley reported that the ship, listing to port, was taking on water, that its radar wasn’t operating and that the ballast tank vent pipes were damaged.

The next day, in a musty old hall in Detroit — its true name is not the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral celebrated by Lightfoot but the Mariners’ Church of Detroit — the church bell chimed till it rang 29 times, one for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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