Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy still draws reverence

Susan R. Pollack
Special to The Detroit News

Whitefish Point, Michigan - For decades, Fran Gabor harbored a nagging guilt that intensified whenever she heard "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," Gordon Lightfoot's ballad about the maritime tragedy whose hold on popular culture is surpassed only by that of the Titanic.

Finally, this summer, she and her husband, Terry, drove more than 550 miles from their home in Madison, Ohio, to the Upper Peninsula on a long-anticipated mission. Their destination: the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point, where they would pay respects to her uncle, Edward Francis Bindon, who went down with the ill-fated freighter.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, known as the “Queen of the Great Lakes,” was immortalized in a ballad by Gordon Lightfoot after sinking mysteriously during a fierce Lake Superior storm on Nov. 10, 1975.

Bindon was first assistant engineer on the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. All 29 crewmen perished when the ship mysteriously disappeared from radar and sank in Lake Superior during a ferocious storm on Nov. 10, 1975. It was loaded with ore and bound for Cleveland, via Detroit, when the storied "gales of November" — near-hurricane-force winds and blinding snow squalls — struck.

"No one's ever been here to represent him. I regret it," she said of her seafaring Uncle Eddie, who had no siblings and no children. Sadly, Gabor said, the Fitzgerald's fatal voyage was to have been his final work trip; he'd planned to come home and retire after that.

Each Nov. 10, at 7:10 p.m., during the museum's annual memorial service, the bell is tolled 29 times for the Fitzgerald's crew, plus a 30th time to honor the estimated 30,000 victims on more than 6,000 ships that have gone down on the Great Lakes since the 1600s. The museum, closed for the season, will be open that evening.

To this day, there are many theories but no consensus on how and why the 729-foot steamer, once known as the "Queen of the Great Lakes," went down. The disaster happened in less than 10 minutes with no SOS and no survivors to tell the tale.

The massive freighter, broken in two pieces, lies in frigid waters 17 miles off Whitefish Point, 535 feet below Superior's surface. It's the last and most famous victim in "the graveyard of the Great Lakes," a region that's littered with at least 240 shipwrecks.

Whitefish Point, north of the little town of Paradise on Michigan's so-called Shipwreck Coast, has been on Gabor's bucket list for years.

A gift from the grave

Now 68, Gabor pondered her uncle's fate as she stood in the darkened shipwreck museum near the Fitzgerald's gleaming bronze bell. Divers recovered the 200-pound artifact from the wreck site on July 4, 1995, 20 years after the disaster. In its place, they installed a replica bell inscribed with names of the lost crew, to serve as a permanent grave-marker.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point holds the bell divers recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald 20 years after it sank in Lake Superior.

As Lightfoot's haunting ballad played in the moody museum, Gabor shared details about her lost uncle that gave her listeners goose bumps: Just days after hearing the stunning news about the Fitzgerald, his grieving widow got a surprise delivery, a veritable gift from the grave. While in port in Duluth, Minn., Bindon had bought his wife a two-carat diamond ring as a surprise 25th wedding anniversary gift. He had given it to a friend for safekeeping.

"For some reason, he didn't want to take it aboard the ship. He just had an ominous feeling — at least that's how it seems," said Gabor, who still can picture her family crying together in the kitchen when the ring arrived. "My aunt never remarried, and she wore that ring the rest of her life."

Crosses placed on the beach

Thirty-nine years after the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, "the legend lives on" and continues to intrigue the public, thanks largely to Lightfoot's song, which was written on an airplane and inspired, the Canadian folksinger has said, by an article he read in Newsweek.

Gabor visits the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in September to pay respects to her late uncle.

"We get people here from all over the world," said Terry Begnoche, site manager of the shipwreck museum, which draws upward of 65,000 visitors from May through October. "It's amazing what a song and a story can do."

In addition to touring the museum, watching a video and shopping, visitors may climb Lake Superior's oldest active lighthouse and stay overnight in the Crews Quarters of the restored U.S. Coast Guard Lifeboat Station. The bed and breakfast-style accommodations, with five themed rooms and a shared common area, are so popular reservations are advised far in advance.

Most visitors also stroll along the boardwalk and shoreline, gazing out across the waves, thinking about the doomed Edmund Fitzgerald. Some pause to photograph makeshift driftwood crosses occasionally placed on the beach, temporary, yet poignant tributes to the lost mariners in their watery grave.

Susan R. Pollack is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

If you go ...

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point is 370 miles north of Detroit. Check shipwreckmuseum.com; (906) 635-1742. The museum's main gallery will be open from 1-4 p.m. Nov. 10, convenient for those attending that night's memorial service. The Crews Quarters is open this year through Nov. 11; it is booked for the night of Nov. 10, but a few rooms are still available for Nov. 9 and nights before then. The buildings close for the season, but the grounds are open year-round for anyone interested in visiting Whitefish Point in winter.

Other attractions

Elsewhere in the UP, a portion of a life-ring that washed ashore from the Edmund Fitzgerald and two recovered lifeboats are on display in the museum ship, Valley Camp, in Sault Ste. Marie, about 70 miles from Whitefish Point. The attraction is now closed for the season, but will reopen in mid-May. Check saulthistoricsites.com; (906) 632-3658. Another nearby attraction is Tahquamenon Falls State Park, open year-round and home to one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi