Still Holding Her Own: The Edmund Fitzgerald's Legend Still Lives, 47 Years On

Every November around these parts--Chicago, where I live—when the winds start to blow fiercely, people start talking again about the infamous event that happened forty-seven years ago on this very night on the icy waters of Lake Superior: the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, arguably the most infamous ship in Great Lakes history. The legend of the “Fitz” inspired the creation of one of our very first fragrances, which we brought back this month by popular demand in honor of the anniversary of the sinking of the vessel and the disappearance of the crew.

You've probably heard the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” one of the most beloved songs in the American Songbook, composed by the Great American folk musician at Gordon Lightfoot. It's an incredible song, and there's also a great cover of it by our favorite Chicago folk singer, the late Steve Goodman. If you haven't heard the song, get on here YouTube and listen to it, especially today to mark the anniversary. The song talks a bit about what happened on that fateful night, November 10, 1975, although even now no one really knows just how fate took down the mighty Fitz.

A Noble Career and a Fateful Journey

The ship was a Great Lakes freighter, and when she first launched on June 7th, 1958, she was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes. To this day, in fact, she’s the largest to have ever sunk on the Great Lakes. She was in service for seventeen years, carrying iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota to iron works in Detroit, Toledo, and other ports on the Great Lakes. The Fitz set seasonal hall records six times--even breaking her own record--, and the earlier captain, Peter Polster, was known for piping music day and night over the ship's intercom while the vessel passed through the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. Spectators would gather and eagerly await the ship, listening for the music.

The ill-fated final voyage of SS Edmund Fitzgerald began from Superior, Wisconsin near Duluth, Minnesota on the afternoon of November 9th, 1975, bound for a steel mill near Detroit. Another another iron freighter, the SS Arthur M. Anderson, left from the same port around the same time, and the vessels were following one another on the haul. The next day the two ships were caught in the treacherous “Witch of November” as sailors call the notorious late autumn gales of Lake Superior.

Just after seven o’clock in the evening, the captain of the Fitz radioed to the captain of the Anderson.

“We are holding our own,” he said.

And then the Edmund Fitzgerald sank.

One of the things that's so mysterious about the Fitzgerald’s sinking was that the captain at the time, Ernest McSorley, had 44 years of experiences as a mariner, but he did not send a distress signal.

And he knew the ship was in trouble. It was taking on water. The pumps were all going, the radars were out. There was damage to the top side. Without a doubt, it was one of the most troubled seas he had ever seen. And yet, at exactly 7:10, in the middle of this nightmare scenario, he radioed Captain Jesse Cooper of the Anderson that all was under control. Seconds later, the 729-foot Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared under the waves, taking with it its entire crew of 29 men.

Not one has ever been seen again.

At the time of the disaster, the two freighters were in Canadian waters, near Whitefish Bay. If you’ve ever been up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in the Upper Penninsula, you know Whitefish Bay is about as far north as you can get in the state. Even today, it’s a very remote area, and a wild area. Beautiful, stunning—but with treacherously freezing waters.  Deceased bodies float after bacteria begins forming following death. It's the bacteria that brings the body to the water's surface.  Because of the frigid temperatures of Lake Superior, bacteria can't form, and so few drowning victims are ever recovered from its waters.

Unanswered Questions

Of course, the weather conditions were the main factor in the sinking of Edmund Fitzgerald. Yet many experts even now differ on what they think happened to make those weather conditions actually deadly for the crew of the Fitz.  A number of these experts believe that the faulty cargo hatches had a lot to do with the ship’s demise.

There's a phenomenon on Lake Superior called the Three Sisters: a legendary series of waves that will come upon ships without warning. It’s a series of three waves, and the first brings a huge amount of water onto the ship's deck. A second wave comes before the first wave of water has drained from the decks, and so the decks become overloaded. The third wave is uncharacteristically huge, and because the ship is already waterlogged, it overtakes the entire vessel. Many believe this so-caled “vindictive” series of waves may have been what led to the Fitz going down.

Others believe it may have been just one wave—a “rogue wave”—a sudden, massive wall of water that hits like a tidal wave. These waves will come upon ships in the ocean, but also in the Great Lakes. Truly, people that come to the Great Lakes area are often astonished by the size of the Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior, which is enormous—over 30,000 square feet. I live here in Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan, which is enormous itself, though quite a bit smaller than Superior (and a great deal warmer), and I'd never want to be caught out on Lake Michigan during a storm. No way. Lake Superior? Forget it.

Legends of the Fitz

When I say that the Edmund Fitzgerald is legendary, it’s true beyond what a hulking vessel it was—and beyond the mystery of its sinking and the disappearance of its men. In fact, numerous legends surround its inception and its christening and first launch.

The ship was named by the board of the insurance company that built it--Northwestern Mutual—who wanted to name the ship after the president and chairman of the board. Edmund Fitzgerald and his father and grandfather had all been ship captains, so the company thought the name was ideal. But Fitzgerald did not want this. He was totally opposed to having the ship named after him, and he proposed many other names--Centennial, Seaway, Milwaukee, Northwestern--, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The board voted without him, with Fitzgerald declining to participate. The others voted (unanimously, in fact) to name it as planned.

More than 15,000 people attended the vessel’s christening and launch on June 7th, 1958, and the event would live in infamy for the misfortunes that played out. The wife of the ship’s namesake, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, tried to break a champagne bottle over the bow in the traditional gesture of christening the Fitz. It took three attempts to break it, which was already a sign of bad luck. More delays ensued as the shipyard crew struggled with the keel blocks that would free the ship to launch. It ended up launching sideways, creating a huge wave that doused the spectators with freezing water (According to legend, one of them died of a heart attack from the shock of the temperature). Finally, the ship crashed into a pier before stabilizing and righting itself.

Eerily, witnesses later said that it seemed like the ship was trying to climb right out of the water.


A New Generation of Theories, for Better or Worse

I suppose it was inevitable that the History Channel would get its (now often grubby) hands on the story of the ill-fated Fitz. Indeed, in an episode of their series, History’s Mysteries, the channel looked into “Devil’s Triangles”—the Bermuda Triangle and other triangular shaped areas of water that seem attached to bizarre phenomena. The narrator came around to the Great Lakes Triangle, which is actually a collection of mysterious triangles where strange disappearances of aircraft and ships, UFO sightings, time slips and other paranormal activity has been reported. I wrote a little bit about the Lake Michigan Triangle in one of my books—Chicago Haunts 3--, talking about experiences that sailors and pilots have had flying over Lake Michigan in one of the Great Lakes Triangle areas between Chicago, Luddington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. And while I know that many odd things have happened within our Great Lakes Triangle, I was first saddened and then angered to watch as the History Channel put forth a theory that the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald may have been abducted by aliens.

I guess I should not have been surprised. Even now, on this day, forty-seven after the disappearance of the Edmund Fitzgerald, we still are really no closer to understanding what happened to this powerful, enormous vessel—and what became of the captain and the crew: those dauntless men who fell under the spell of the “Witch of November” that fateful year, never to be released. I guess we are all still trying to find the answer in our own ways—History Channel included.

Today, forty-seven years after that terrible night, I have no theories to add to the mound of conjecture that has been amassed about the sinking of history's mysterious and beloved Fitz. I just want to add my voice to the remembrance of those men, and of their ship--so towering, so powerful, both in life and in memory.

I hope the little perfume I created is seen as it was meant: as a small tribute to the fierceness of these men and the awesomeness of the vessel they served. I hope you try the fragrance (the sales benefit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Bay), but most of all I hope you spend a little time today remembering and praying for the crew that was lost on this vessel so many years ago today, and for the family members and descendants of these heroic sailors.

Thanks for opening this bottle with me.

Happy Legend Tripping,



Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published