Saturday, November 16, 2013

"The Legend Lives On...

...from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitchi Gumi..."

Overshadowed earlier in the week by the USMC birthday and the Veterans Day posts, I missed another historic moment. Revered in Great Lakes lore,and romanticized by songwriters such as Gordon Lighfoot, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the largest maritime disasters in the history of Great Lakes shipping.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, nicknamed "Mighty Fitz" or "Big Fitz" was off to a rocky start from the beginning. It took three attempts to break the champagne bottle on her christening and she collided with a pier on launch, but went off to a 17 year run of great success. When launched on June 8, 1958 the Fitzgerald was the largest ship on any of the Great Lakes.

For 17 years the Fitz carried tactonite iron ore from Duluth, MN to Detroit, Toledo and other Great Lakes ports. The workhorse of Superior, she set seasonal haul records six different times. Affectionately known as the DJ captain, Captain Peter Pulcer was known to pipe blaring music through the ship's loudspeakers and to entertain spectators on the shore of the canals and rivers with running commentary on the ship as she passed by. The Big Fitz was a fan favorite, and people often came out in great numbers to see her and wave to the crew as she passed by.

All that would end on November 9-10, 1975, when the ship sunk in a massive gale while carrying 26,000 tons of tactonite. A series of problems and mishaps led to the sinking and the deaths of the 29 crew members on board. While no one knows the exact cause or sequence of events, it is known that the Fitzgerald was caught by an early November storm, battered by 50mph+ winds, and flooded by swells over 20 ft. tall that raked her from the side and swamped her decks. The Fitzgerald sunk swiftly, and at some point broke into two pieces, though it's not known for sure if the ship split while sinking or if it split when it hit the lake bottom.

Memorial services for the crew members lost were held in the Mariner's Church in Detroit. During the service, the church bell rang 29 times, once for each life lost. 

The ship's bell was recovered from the wreck in 1995 and was replaced with a replica which was engraved with the names of the 29 crew members. The original bell, along with other recovered items were displayed at a permanent memorial in Whitefish Point. After a series of controversies surrounding an attempted removal of the bell, it ended up on permanent display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, also at Whitefish Point, where it is still today. The museum is a tribute to all of the souls lost on all of the Great Lakes.

Controversy over the wreck continues to this day, as new theories arise with regularity. None can be proven totally conclusive, so debate will no doubt continue.

Gordon Lightfoot brought this event to life in 1976 with his stirring folk ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". It is a song as relevant and moving today as it was when released and is recommended listening for all.

Whether the mystery will be solved or not cannot be said with certainty. Regardless, it is a maritime tragedy, as are all lives and ships lost in the transportation of Great Lakes commerce. Never forget those who gave their all in a dangerous line of work, and never take for granted those who go to work knowing the risks. To them, it's not just a job and it's often not for the money. It's carrying on a tradition and a way of life.

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