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46 years ago, a violent storm sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior

Edmund Fitzgerald
Posted at 8:35 AM, Nov 10, 2021

November can be a very turbulent month for weather across Michigan and gales (very strong winds) are common on the Great Lakes.  

Intense areas of low pressure can sweep across the Great Lakes region bringing arctic air masses. The relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes can help storms intensify and produce life-threatening conditions.   

Related: 3 new shipwrecks identified in Lake Superior; here are their stories

It was 46 years ago today when one of these violent storms blew across the Great Lakes sinking the Edmund Fitzgerald. The wreck occurred just northwest of Whitefish Point in Lake Superior. All twenty-nine crew members were lost as the ship sank in 530 feet of water. 

Related: You can track shipwrecks in the Great Lakes with this map

The Edmund Fitzgerald was first launched on June 7, 1958 and was the largest carrier on the Great Lakes until 1971. The ship weighed 13,632 tons and measured 729 feet long by 75 feet wide. The Fitzgerald was the first carrier to haul more than one million tons of iron ore pellets through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, earning the nickname, “The Pride of the American Flag”.

42 years ago: Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald

On November 9, 1975, the Fitzgerald departed Superior, Wisconsin bound for Detroit’s Zug Island. Within 24 hours, the ship was battling hurricane force winds and waves up to 25 feet. The U.S. Coast Guard told ships out on the Great Lakes to seek safe harbor as the storm strengthened.

Captain Ernest McSorley’s last radio transmission stated he and his crew were “holding our own.” It was just a short time later the Fitzgerald vanished from radar only 17 miles from shore.  

There has been speculation that the Edmund Fitzgerald broke in half on the surface as the bow and stern rode the crests of two large waves. However, the Coast Guard’s final report suggests the Fitzgerald instead nosedived into a large wave and was not able to recover and plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior in only seconds.

42 years ago: Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald

As the cargo of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets quickly shifted forward while the Fitzgerald was going down, the bow of the ship hit the bottom with such extreme force that the vessel snapped in two.

Every year, ceremonies are held for the family and friends of the lost crewmen of the Edmund Fitzgerald where a bell tolls 29 times for the 29 men, who ranged from age 21 to 63, who were tragically lost that night.  Of the more than 1000 ships in the graves under the icy waters of the Great Lakes, the Edmund Fitzgerald is still the largest to ever go down.