40 years later, Edmund Fitzgerald remains a mystery

Susan R. Pollack
Special to The Detroit News

It has been called the “Titanic of the Great Lakes” and ranks among the most famous shipwrecks in American history. Nearly 40 years after the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the legend lives on and continues to intrigue the public.

Even for those too young to remember the 1975 Michigan maritime disaster, Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting ballad immortalized the Nov. 10 tragedy when “the gales of November” came early and the massive freighter sank in Lake Superior with all 29 crewmen aboard.

The sudden disappearance of the 729-foot ore carrier — the “Queen of the Great Lakes” — confounded experts four decades ago. And, despite a flood of official reports, underwater investigations and theories (including UFO’s and space aliens), it’s still a mystery today.

“In my research, every shipwreck is invariably caused by a chain of circumstances,” says Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse of Marquette, author of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: 40th Anniversary Edition” (Avery Color Studios, $17.95). “Forty years later and no one can definitively say why the Fitzgerald sank – it remains an open question.”

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As part of next week’s 40th anniversary observances, Stonehouse will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. An overflow crowd of some 200 is expected at the Upper Peninsula museum, located 17 miles from where the ship, broken in two pieces, rests in its watery grave, 535 feet below Lake Superior’s surface.

About two dozen relatives of the Fitzgerald’s crew, including extended family from as far away as South Carolina, plan to attend the public service and traditional “Call to the Last Watch Ceremony.” The Fitzgerald’s restored bronze bell — retrieved from the shipwreck in 1995 — will toll 29 times for the missing crewmen plus a 30th time to honor all the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.

In his latest book, Stonehouse lays out the myriad theories surrounding the Fitzgerald disaster, including unsecured hatch covers, deferred maintenance, a trio of 30-foot-plus rogue waves known as “Three Sisters,” and the notion that the ship either was structurally unsound or off-course.

“Others have talked about space aliens that supposedly were seen on the northern shore of the lake,” Stonehouse said dismissively in a recent telephone interview with The Detroit News.

After years of research, he’s inclined to believe that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on dangerous amounts of water even as it was buffeted by hurricane-force winds and blinding snow squalls. Stonehouse said he came to that conclusion gradually, based on conversations with Capt. Bernie Cooper, who was the last to speak to the Fitzgerald’s captain. Cooper’s ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, was closest to the Fitzgerald during the treacherous storm.

“In my mind and if I were to put money on it, she probably hit Caribou Shoal,” Stonehouse said, emphasizing, however, that there’s no proof of that. “She bottomed out and continued forward for a while before the damage finally broke her up. The damage, in combination with the extreme storm, caused the ship to dive to the bottom.”

Susan Pollack is a Metro Detroit travel writer.

Commemorative events

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

A 40th anniversary observance begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the main gallery of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in U.P. A “live feed” will be shown at several sites on the museum campus. Go to shipwreckmuseum.com; (906) 492-3747.

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle

A sellout crowd of more than 150 is expected for the annual “Lost Mariners Remembrance,” beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Edmund Fitzgerald anchor outside of the museum at 100 Strand Drive, Belle Isle, Detroit, 48207. The anchor, which was lost in the Detroit River years before the fatal voyage, was retrieved in 1992. Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock will perform. Go to Detroithistorical.org/dossin-great-lakes-museum; (313) 833-1801.

Mariner’s Church in Detroit

The annual Great Lakes Memorial Service and bell-ringing, honoring the Edmund Fitzgerald crew and all lost Great Lakes mariners, will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday, at the church, 170 E. Jefferson Ave, Detroit, 48226. Go to marinerschurchofdetroit.org; (313) 259-2206.

For a complete list of events related to the anniversary, click here.

Fitzgerald trivia from the book:

The Fitzgerald was bound for Detroit with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets — enough to produce approximately 7,500 automobiles (1975 size). Since entering service in 1958, the ship completed 748 trips covering more than one million miles and hauling an estimated 19 million tons of taconite.