Maritime Heritage Month: December
“Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters”
(Psalm 107:23 ESV).
Did you know that December, 2011, was Maritime Heritage Month? Neither did I. Till now. But since I love the sea and tend to visit it as often as I can—not to Sea-Doo, sunbathe, surf, or swim—but to enjoy the great outdoors, I thought I’d share one of its stories.
The Great Lakes are unlike the ocean not only because they are freshwater compared with saltwater, but also because they are placid. The waves do not surge as do the waves of the sea but lap gently. In winter the Great Lakes ice over, at least near land. Yes, I know the Arctic does too when it gets cold enough, but much of the Atlantic and the Pacific do not. I’ve walked on Lake Michigan in January and climbed its precipices, where waves have dashed against the shore, frozen in place, and been sculpted by the wind creating an alfresco ice castle.
There are many museums on the Great Lakes. Almost every Great Lakes museum I’ve been to has something to say about the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Probably because it was the largest boat launched on the Great Lakes and remains the largest boat sunk there. A freighter, it was christened 7 June 1958, went into service 24 September 1958, and served proudly nearly twenty years, lugging iron ore between Minnesota and Michigan—until its sudden demise 10 November 1975 near Whitefish Point, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on Lake Superior.
The story I heard was that the 63-year-old Captain Ernest McSorley was overconfident. He was told a winter storm was coming and he should remain in port until it passed, but, known as a good man to have at the wheel during stormy weather, he had no fear of storms and perhaps wanted to add more bragging rights to the ship’s already illustrious career. He had spent part of his youth on the St Lawrence Seaway, in Ogdensburg, New York, then over forty years at sea and on the Great Lakes. He had captained this ship since 1972, and the Fitzgerald had never let him down. Like the RMS Titanic, it was, it seems, unsinkable.
McSorley was taking the Fitzgerald’s full load of ore from Superior, Wisconsin (on Lake Superior), to Detroit, Michigan (on Lake Huron), only a few miles from his home in Toledo, Ohio (on Lake Erie). Perhaps McSorley just wanted to get home early for Thanksgiving, 24 November, two weeks away. This trip was already planned as his last run: he was retiring.
To go from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, McSorley would’ve had to go through the Soo Locks, Sault St Marie, Michigan. He never made it that far. When the blizzard hit, it was massive, with 35-foot waves and hurricane-force winds. By the afternoon of 10 November the Fitzgerald was listing and taking in water; the bilge pumps were running continuously. Meanwhile the US Coast Guard was warning ships that the Soo Locks were closed and to seek safety. McSorley inquired about Whitefish Point only to learn that their light was on but their radio was out. Winds had picked up to near 60 mph. A peer ship, the SS Arthur M Anderson, captained by Jesse Cooper, was hit with 90-mph gusts. The last message to the Anderson from the Fitzgerald, 7:10 pm, was, “We are holding our own.” Within minutes the Fitzgerald must have sunk into waters over 500 feet deep. A half-hour later the Anderson contacted the US Coast Guard that they had lost all communication with the Fitzgerald. The Coast Guard asked any ships in the area to search for the ship and survivors. Near 11:00 pm the Coast Guard had aircraft searching; after midnight, a helicopter. No ship, no cargo, and no one was recovered—just lifeboats and rafts. All twenty-nine crewmen perished. In water that cold no one could have survived more than a few minutes.
The day after the disaster the Mariners Church, Detroit, rang its bell twenty-nine times, once for each life on board. Later that month, Gordon Lightfoot, inspired by an article in Newsweek, 24 November 1975, wrote “The Wreck Of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The following spring, 1976, the US Navy found the Fitzgerald lying in two large pieces, suggesting massive structural failure. The ship’s bell (left) is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Whitefish Point; its anchor (right) is on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit, Michigan. Every year, on the anniversary of the wreck, the Split-Rock Light, in Minnesota, emits a light in honor of the Fitzgerald.
There is only one road, south to north, to Whitefish Point. To visit you will have to take M-123 off I-75. You may find a few things of interest along the way—ironically a wide place in the road called Paradise—but generally you will be leaving civilization behind. You will notice the forest of the Great North Woods and that the vegetation is stunted by the cold weather. Cold weather is good for growing blueberries—this is blueberry country.
When you get to Whitefish Point, hope that the place is manned and open, otherwise it can be lonely. As someone said, “It may not be the end of the world, but it feels like it.” Behind the lighthouse, overlooking Lake Superior, is a deck and park benches where you can pause to contemplate, feel the breeze, and watch the seagulls. The place feels benign, but don’t be fooled. Between the loss of the Invincible (1816) and the loss of the Fitzgerald (1975), the area in and around Whitefish Point witnessed nearly 250 shipwrecks. So there is a good reason why its museum is called the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” ~Joseph Conrad
Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee