"Do you realize what the conditions are out there?"
November 2, 2015 8:56 PM   Subscribe

On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank off Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior. In the intervening years, weather researchers have compiled and simulated the data of the weather that led to the sinking. In 2010, Gordon Lightfoot revised the lyrics to his famous song about the sinking, based on claims that a "rogue wave" was enough to cause the Fitzgerald to sink.

The Storm that Sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald:
This data set contains one worksheet of data, detailing the weather conditions before and after the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975. The data contains the time collected, location of the weather stations from which the conditions were reported (the abbreviations are from ships that reported in as weather stations), the wind speed and direction, the wave height, and the precipitation and visibility.
The Edmund Fitzgerald during its service as a freighter:

Video of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Some video context for the weather faced on Lake Superior by lake freighters and their crews:

858' Great Lakes Freighter Roger Blough: heavy seas on Lake Superior.

The Cason J. Calloway: heavy Lake Superior.

The Charles Wilson: A Gale on Lake Superior December 29, 1993 .

The conditions on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 would have been far worse.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigation (pdf) into the sinking concluded:
...that the probable cause of this accident was the sudden massive flooding of the cargo hold due to the collapse of one or more hatch covers. Before the hatch covers collapsed, flooding into the ballast tanks and tunnel through topside damage and flooding into the cargo hold through non-weathertight hatch covers caused a reduction of freeboard and a list. The hydrostatic and hydrodynamic forces imposed on the hatch covers by heavy boarding seas at this reduced freeboard and with the list caused the hatch covers to collapse.
Edmund Fitzgerald: 25 Years of Speculation, Fascination and Grieving:

What is known is that 29 men lost their lives in the cold waters of Lake Superior and that their families continue to mourn in private amid the celebrity of the shipwreck.

What also can be stated with certainty is that sometime between 7:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., the Fitzgerald simply disappeared into Lake Superior about 15 miles from the shelter of Whitefish Bay just west of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, during ferocious northwest winds and seas that washed as high as eight to 12 feet over the ship’s main deck. The Arthur M. Anderson, an ore carrier in the U.S. Steel fleet, had been trailing and providing navigational information to the Fitzgerald because the Fitz’s radars had malfunctioned about four hours earlier. Captain Jessie B. “Bernie” Cooper of the Anderson reported his concern for the Fitzgerald to the Coast Guard station in Sault Ste. Marie at 7:39 p.m., continued to try to raise radio contact with the big ship. He again voiced grave concern that the Fitzgerald was missing at 8:32 p.m.
A recording of the radio transmissions between Captain Jesse B. Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson and the US Coast Guard station at Sault Sainte Marie provides a first-hand account of the lake the Fitzgerald was facing by the captain of a ship who had maintained visual and radar contact to help guide it. A little over 30 minutes in length, the full mp3 of the audio is available from the Vincent Voice Library at MSU (direct mp3 link, also at boatnerd here).

Once he confirms the Fitzgerald was likely lost, the US Coast Guard asks him to go back and look for survivors:
USCG:"Do you think there is any possibility and you could...ah...come about and go back there and do any searching?"

Cooper: "Ah, God, I don't know, ah...that...that sea out there is tremendously large. Ah, if you want me to, I can, but I'm not going to be making any time; I'll be lucky to make two or three miles an hour going back out that way."

"Well, you'll have to make a decision as to whether you will be hazarding your vessel or not, but you're probably one of the only vessels right now that can get to the scene. We're going to try to contact those saltwater vessels and see if they can't possibly come about and possibly come back also...things look pretty bad right now; it looks like she may have split apart at the seams like the Morrell did a few years back."

"Well, that's what I been thinking. But we were talking to him about seven and he said that everything was going fine. He said that he was going along like an old shoe; no problems at all."

"Well, again, do you think you could come about and go back and have a look in the area?"

"Well, I'll go back and take a look, but God, I'm afraid I'm going to take a hell of a beating out there... I'll turn around and give 'er a whirl, but God, I don't know. I'll give it a try."

"That would be good."

"Do you realize what the conditions are out there?"

"Affirmative. From what your reports are I can appreciate the conditions. Again, though, I have to leave that decision up to you as to whether it would be hazarding your vessel or not. If you think you can safely go back up to the area, I would request that you do so. But I have to leave the decision up to you."

"I'll give it a try, but that's all I can do."
Cooper indeed hazarded his vessel and crew to go back, but to no avail. The crew of the Arthur M. Anderson would encounter debris, but no survivors.

Twenty nine men died that night:
Captain Ernest M. McSorley
Michael E. Armagost
Fred J. Beetcher
Thomas D. Bentsen
Edward F. Bindon
Thomas D. Borgeson
Oliver J. Champeau
Nolan S. Church
Ransom E. Cundy
Thomas E. Edwards
Russell G. Haskell
George J. Holl
Bruce L. Hudson
Allen G. Kalmon
Gorden Maclellan
Joseph Mazes
John H. McCarthy
Eugene O'Brien
Karl A. Peckol
John J. Poviach
James A. Pratt
Robert C. Rafferty
Paul M. Rippa
John D. Simmons
William J. Spengler
Mark A. Thomas
Ralph G. Walton
David E. Weiss
Blaine H. Wilhelm
On the 40th anniversary of its sinking, "statewide events remember sinking of Edmund Fitzgerald" in Michigan.

"Remembering the Fitz: During the day before this year's Lost Mariners Remembrance, you can visit the Dossin Great Lakes Museum and learn more about the Edmund Fitzgerald on the 40th anniversary of her loss."

Ten years ago on Metafilter: 30 Years Ago Today

Also previously.
posted by mandolin conspiracy (44 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by mattdidthat at 9:14 PM on November 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Seven aboard the Fitz, including Captain Ernest McSorley, were from here in Toledo. Toledo was, in fact, the Fitz's home port. I saw her in port many times as a small child. Of course, when you see the freighters up and down the river all the time, you kind of become blind to them after a while - the Fitz was just another freighter, but notable because the Skipper was a hometown fella. I was 5 when she was lost, but remember the news vividly. Our community was stunned and hurt. We still are, as the children who lost their fathers now talk to THEIR children about the night their grandfather was lost.

I go to the memorial service at the Port of Toledo every year. Back over Labor Day, I took my nephew to the Dossin Museum of the Great Lakes on Belle Isle, in Detroit. The bow anchor of the Fitz is there, as is a phenomenally detailed exhibit, including recordings of the last transmissions of the Fitz. I talked to him at length about the wreck and the lasting impact it has had on Toledo families.

As we came out of the building, a freighter passed, gliding silently along the Detroit River. My nephew had never seen a freighter, so hearing his astonishment was a great reminder of how incredible these vessels are.

Anyone who wants to talk smack about Gordon Lightfoot's tribute is cordially invited to cram it. He's singing about some of my townsmen there. Have a care for the people who still love and miss them.
posted by MissySedai at 9:52 PM on November 2, 2015 [30 favorites]


If you're ever in the Denver area I highly recommend the Colorado Model Railroad Museum in Greeley. Besides their world class model railroad they have a few model ships on display. They have a rather nice scale model of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which broke, while being transported, in the same spot that the real one broke while sinking.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:05 PM on November 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


Also one of the best porters around.
posted by klangklangston at 10:16 PM on November 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Top five songs about death."
"The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Gordon Lightfoot."
"Bastard, that's so good! Shoulda been mine."
posted by JLovebomb at 11:04 PM on November 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Great post! I've been to the shipwreck museum in Whitefish Point and seen the exhibition there on the Edmund Fitzgerald. I recommend the museum if you're ever around the area.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:09 PM on November 2, 2015


I'm not sure why anyone would talk smack about the Lightfoot song, I think it holds up very well. It's a modern version of ballads used to record and keep alive information about an important event.
posted by maxwelton at 11:10 PM on November 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


It also has a bit on the salvaging of the bell from the shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Its website.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:16 PM on November 2, 2015


Growing up, my father was a commercial salmon fisherman on the British Columbia coast, taking his 42' troller/gillnetter all the way up and down the coast in all kinds of weather and cruising the North Pacific from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up to the Dixon Entrance. He had a deep appreciation for the fury of nature experienced by a mariner. He always loved the Gordon Lightfoot song and unlike some who made their living on the west coast he would never denigrate the Great Lakes as lesser bodies of water, and always impressing on me how fierce and unpredictable these inland waters could be. After all, if Superior could claim a huge freighter like the Edmund Fitzgerald, to call it anything less than a freshwater sea devalues the bravery of the people who make their living on those waters.

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posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:20 PM on November 2, 2015 [8 favorites]




OK, I'm gonna "talk some smack" about that lyric substitution: At 7 PM, it grew dark. It would have already been dark long before 7 (sunset would have been around 5:15). Plus, storms make things darker anyway. It's a particularly lame line in an otherwise well-written song...and jeesh, he only had to come up with one new line, that's the best he could do?
posted by mysterious_stranger at 3:01 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


My wife hates Gordon Lightfoot's music with the blazing fury of a thousand anti-Canadian suns, and isn't too fond of Robert Service either, so today is now officially Singing The Cremation Of Sam McGee To The Tune Of The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald Day. I thank you, and the world thanks you.
posted by Shepherd at 3:05 AM on November 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


What an amazing post: my compliments. I think I learned more about the event by reading the excerpts here --never mind the linked material --than I knew while growing up in Minnesota, which is adjacent to the very lake!

And I like the comparison of the song to a troubadour preserving and passing down oral history. The song is a little bombastic for modern tastes but it's hardly an embarrassment.

29@.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:17 AM on November 3, 2015


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posted by tilde at 3:47 AM on November 3, 2015


And this theory, too.
posted by grounded at 5:16 AM on November 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's a modern version of ballads used to record and keep alive information about an important event.

Indeed, the biggest surprise of this post is that it happened in my lifetime. I always assumed it was ancient history.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:40 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I had no idea until today that the "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was about a modern event. I also have never listened to it, which might have played a part.
posted by josher71 at 5:40 AM on November 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


My younger brother and I shared a room until I was 11 or so, and he had a kind of grotesque fascination with boats, and wrecks in particular. I think it probably started with the Titanic, but then grew to extend the Andrea Gail (our grandparents lived in Gloucester), the Lusitania, documentaries about Scottish Fishing Disasters, the Andrea Dorea, etc. etc. etc. You know how most families play "20 Questions" while they're waiting for a table at a restaurant, or something? We would play "I'm thinking of a ship." And the first question to narrow down the choices was always "Did it sink?"

All this to say, my brother's choice in music to fall asleep by was a little warped. My dad burned him a CD of sea chanties with some other boat-themed music, including Brendan's favorite. For something like 3 years, every night, we would fall asleep to the woeful true story of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Scarring.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:45 AM on November 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


me, three hours ago before enough coffee: The song is a little bombastic for modern tastes…

I gave the song another listen while I shaved this morning, and the music totally holds up, though the vocals get a little…mannered at times. Very good song, AAA+++ will actually listen again.

I will come clean and admit that the melody was confused with Billy Joel's "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" [SLYT] in my mind, and boy am I glad to have hosed that out by listening to the correct song.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:12 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


ChuraChura, you're bringing back memories! What is it with little boys and morbid obsessions?

Shipwrecks were the center of my childhood world. I was fascinated with shipwrecks--Robert Ballard, the Bismarck, the Titanic--but the Edmund Fitzgerald was my favorite, mostly because of the song.

When I was eight or so, my uncle bought me a Gordon Lightfoot album (Gord's Gold, Vol. II) solely so I could listen to the song. So I did, every morning, in the car, on the way to swim practice. Over and over and over and over. For almost a year, every day, get into the car, skip to track six. The ride was just a little longer than the song. I once asked a DJ at a middle-school dance to play it for the slow song, but he wouldn't do it.

When I was ten, I made two-minutes'-worth of a stop-motion film about the Edmund Fitzgerald with a boat made out of Legos, in which I mispronounced "taconite" about five times in a single sentence. I was going to call it Red Skies in the Morning. I really wish I still had a copy.
posted by Oxydude at 6:20 AM on November 3, 2015 [10 favorites]


Great post. Cool to see the film footage of the ship, I'd never seen that before.
The shots of the various ships in gale-force winds are terrifying. Add "working on a freighter" to the list of things I'd never have the guts to do.

I'm not sure if this is still the case, but it seems like several generations of Canadian kids had that one teacher in grade 5 or 6 who made you learn The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It's a thing that you might grudgingly, resentfully do at the time, but really appreciate later; kind of like mandatory French until grade 9.
posted by chococat at 6:35 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I spent several years living about half a mile from the Ore Docks of the North Shore of MN. Every day during shipping season, I'd see ore boats in the docks: pivoting in, loading taconite, and then departing the narrow bay for its next stop. I often joined the tourist crowds in the summer to watch the 1,000 foot Lakers maneuver into the narrow bay, but I also would watch the boats come in as I walked the dog by the docks on cold November mornings. It was usually just me, the dog, and the boats. They were like old friends: Good morning, Edwin. Heading to Thunder Bay later today? Look, here comes Walter. Haven't seen him in a while.

Around this time of year I'd think about the Edmund Fitzgerald: not just the 29 men lost, but the loss of one of these immense boats. What would it be like if the Cason Calloway, the Hon. James L. Oberstar, or the Presque Isle someday went down? What if they left the docks and never came back? How can that be - they're invincible, right?
posted by Elly Vortex at 7:21 AM on November 3, 2015 [9 favorites]


wenestvedt: I will come clean and admit that the melody was confused with Billy Joel's "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" [SLYT] in my mind, and boy am I glad to have hosed that out by listening to the correct song.

Billy Joel has said that he had Gordon Lightfoot on his mind when he wrote Downeaster Alexa. It was either on a bootleg or a live record where he played with song with an accordion accompaniment to drive home the sea chanty feel.
posted by dr_dank at 7:41 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love the cadence of that sweet, sad, waltz. The resonance of Lightfoot's voice is perfect for echoing across time.
posted by Oyéah at 7:53 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's hard to fully grasp just how big Superior is until you read that the nearest Coast Guard cutter (the only ships capable of sailing in that weather) was over 300 miles away.
posted by tommasz at 8:31 AM on November 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


I saw a play about the Edmund Fitzgerald in Madison some time during the 80s. It was pretty good as small plays in small venues went -- although it obviously lost some of the immensity of the ship in the process.

And the Great Lakes are nothing to fool with; storms are often sudden and intense. I think it was the Canadian folk singer Stand Rogers who pointed out that the Bermuda Triangle is considered mysterious because 100 or so ships have disappeared there since people started keeping records; Lake Michigan alone claimed 2-3 times as many ships in the same time period and no one blames aliens....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:57 AM on November 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


Yeah, people forget how common shipwrecks used to be. The insurance industry was founded on insuring ships; there's a scene in the latest season of Game of Thrones that involves an insurer.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:02 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not only common, but "unknown," in the sense that you might never find out what happened to the ship if it went down suddenly with all crew and no external witnesses. Honestly, it must have been terrifying, sailing out into even a large lake, knowing that, if your vessel was lost, no one might ever figure out what happened to you....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:09 AM on November 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Such a fluke: a slow droning repetitive waltz with no chorus that goes on for more than twice as a long as any other song, yet becomes a massive AM radio hit. Program directors really were boggled at the time.
posted by ovvl at 9:32 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


My wife hates Gordon Lightfoot's music with the blazing fury of a thousand anti-Canadian suns, and isn't too fond of Robert Service either, so today is now officially Singing The Cremation Of Sam McGee To The Tune Of The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald Day. I thank you, and the world thanks you.

Canadian Railroad Trilogy has like seven solid minutes of lyrics if you're making a day of it and want to switch things up to keep it fresh.

I grew up watching downbound and upbound freighters from the Canadian side of the St. Clair River from a pretty close-in vantage point (as these divers demonstrate as one passes right overhead, the freighters aren't drawing much water in that shipping channel - it's fairly narrow and shallow).

Watching these big freighters and also hearing "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" a lot - lots of Gordon Lightfoot was in my dad's LP rotation - it was hard not to be fascinated by the power of the Great Lakes (they could do that to ships that large? But they're just lakes!).

So having grown up on (and having been caught in storms on) Lake Huron, my honest-to-goodness reaction the first time I stood on the shore of Lake Superior was "Well, I guess old Gord wasn't exaggerating anything about this here lake."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:51 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Speaking of Stan Rogers, another great song of his about tragedy on the Great Lakes is White Squall (yt).
posted by Space Coyote at 10:27 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Shore ice image from Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Feb. 2014. (alternate src)

(The same page shows similar-sized ship Walter McCarthy frozen in place in port).

If you're ever in Duluth with a few spare hours, a drive up the north shore of Superior is hard to forget.
(P.S. Looks AS IF the Duluth chamber of commerce has removed all web pictures of the HUGE piles of ice that can build up on the city's lakeshores in the winter.)
posted by Twang at 11:03 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I also despise Gordon Lightfoot and his song about the Edmund Fitzgerald (I remember when it was a giant radio hit, but my family's been in Chicago since before the Fire and the Great Lakes are my landscape. They are amazing and the storms are wild and they swallow giant ships but they are so beautiful.

I've also spent a good chunk of my life away from home and learned that the wild power and size of the Great Lakes is something many people really don't get. I remember once mocking a friend whose girlfriend legitimately thought the pilot of the airplane had gotten off course and was flying them over the Atlantic instead of the central US when they were over the Lakes.

So, I kinda dislike Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald about as much as I hate any song, but at least it keeps people fascinated by the Lakes, which are amazing.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:46 AM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


tommasz: ...the only ships capable of sailing in that weather) was over 300 miles away.

As a kid I hiked the length of Isle Royale -- it's "the biggest island in the biggest lake in the world" -- with my BoyScout troop. (And yes, it has a biggest lake, which has a couple of tiny islands. Turtles all the way down.) It was a couple-hour boat ride out from the Minnesota shore (well north of Dulut) just to get to the near end of the island, and then more hours out to the far end where our hike started. We covered about fifty miles over a week.

My aunt & uncle (who used to work for one of the taconite companies) and cousins live up north near Keewatin, and my parents' cabin is on Lake Vermilion. As a Rhode Island resident from MN, I was amused to read that Lake Vermilion has about the same mileage of shoreline as does Rhode Island (312 miles versus 384 miles, though RI takes credit for the edges of several islands!).

It is damn big up there in northern Minnesota.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


I grew up in a house within sight of Lake Superior (on Chequamegon Bay) and was nine years old in '75. The wreck and the song haunted my childhood.
posted by mimo at 12:43 PM on November 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


it seems like several generations of Canadian kids had that one teacher in grade 5 or 6 who made you learn The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It's a thing that you might grudgingly, resentfully do at the time, but really appreciate later; kind of like mandatory French until grade 9.

This. And while I will probably lose my Canadian citizenship for this, I am not a Gordon Lightfoot fan (other than Sundown, which is a work of genius), but man do I love The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Just the name gives me goosebumps. The song itself is beyond brilliant. We learned it in school, it was wonderful, awe inspiring, even then.

I have a thing about shipwrecks. And it's at least partly Gordon Lightfoot's fault.
posted by biscotti at 1:17 PM on November 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm a big fan of four-chord Gord, and I think he's a genius, but I have mixed feelings about this song. On one hand, the leaden rhythm and that insistent mosquito lead guitar riff annoy me. On the other hand, his profound words and his solemn half-spoken declamation are deeply penetrating. It's a work for the ages.
posted by ovvl at 3:57 PM on November 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


I grew up with my mother always telling me that her friend's father died on the Edmund Fitzgerald. I believed her because Michigan. A couple winters ago we went up to Whitefish Point. My mom claimed the historical marker was wrong because it listed the sinking as 1975 and she knew it happened while she was in high school. She clearly remembers the girl being out of school because of it. After some sleuthing we figured out that he actually died on the SS Cedarville. So many ships in those waters. The Great Lakes are huge and terrifying.
posted by MaritaCov at 4:31 PM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Like many others I learned about the sinking in elementary school through the song. I grew up on the West Coast of Canada. I remember liking the song but it wasn't until I moved to Ontario to the shores of one of Great Lakes and experienced the power of the weather around them that the song really affected me. Damn thing brings tears every single time now. It really captures some sort of essence of these lakes that I do think has to be experienced first hand to really get.
posted by Jalliah at 4:54 PM on November 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Fantastic post.
posted by clavdivs at 8:05 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've been to the shipwreck museum in Whitefish Point and seen the exhibition there on the Edmund Fitzgerald. I recommend the museum if you're ever around the area.

I've been there too, and I also recommend it, but with a word of warning: at least when I visited in 2008, they apparently played "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" every fifteen minutes in the main building. It's not that big of a museum, and you can easily get through it hearing the song only two or three times, but I felt badly for the people working there.

You can also stay overnight there at the former Coast Guard quarters there, which is a pleasant experience.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:38 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Lots of appropriate admiration for the Great Lakes, where I was born and raised and educated.

Some pictures from Superior, but that might be from Hawaii or the Caribbean.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:12 AM on November 4, 2015


DevilsAdvocate: I remember that! I think it was two tracks, Wreck and some ambient underwatery noises. The repetition of which surely is against the 8th Amendment.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:15 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the best things the Dandy Warhols ever did was their psych-shoegaze cover version of "The Wreck." According to various internet comments, Dandies singer Courtney Taylor's cousin was Edmund Fitzgerald crew member Michael Armagost.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:38 AM on November 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


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