Trivia Minute November 10, 2015

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

by Marcus Michelson
"Edmund Fitzgerald, 1971, 3 of 4 (restored)" by Greenmars. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored).jpg#/media/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored).jpg
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1971. (Photo by Greenmars via Wikimedia Commons) 

Today is the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes freighter the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot.

Here are some things you may not have known about the ship, its sinking and the song.

When it was launched, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. It was built to the maximum size for the St. Lawrence Seaway: 729 feet long, with a beam of 75 feet and draft of 25 feet.

The ship’s usual route was between iron mines near Duluth, Minnesota and steel mills in Toledo, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan. It’s estimated that, in its lifetime, the ship had made 748 round trips, covering a distance roughly equivalent to 44 times around the world.

On November 9, 1975, the Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, carrying more than 29,000 tons of taconite ore pellets, destined for a steel mill near Detroit. At the time of departure, the weather forecast called for a storm to pass south of Lake Superior early the next morning. At 7 p.m., the forecast was changed to issue gale warnings for the entire lake. At 2 a.m., the forecast was upgraded again to a storm warning, with winds up to 58 miles per hour. The next afternoon, snow began to fall, further reducing visibility.  At 3:30 p.m., Captain Ernest McSorley radioed to a nearby ship that the Fitzgerald was taking on water and had developed a list. Forty minutes later, the radar failed on the Fitzgerald, leaving the ship effectively blind. The nearby ship, the Arthur Anderson, attempted to help guide the Fitzgerald to Whitefish Bay. Just before 5 p.m., the Anderson recorded sustained winds of 67 miles per hour with 25-foot seas and 35-foot rogue waves.

At 7:10 p.m., the Anderson asked how the Fitzgerald was faring. McSorley responded, “We are holding our own.” The ship sank minutes later with no distress signal.

A three-day search for survivors and wreckage ensued. The entire 29-man crew was lost.

A U.S. Coast Guard investigation determined that the sinking was caused by faulty hatch closures, which allowed the cargo hold to fill with water. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the Fitzgerald hit an uncharted reef and sank unexpectedly. Another theory is that the Fitzgerald was structurally unsound and broke apart in the waves.

In 1976, a story in Newsweek magazine inspired Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot to write and record the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” While Lightfoot took some artistic liberties with the lyrics, the song made the sinking one of the most well-known shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.

Our question, what is the Chippewa name for Lake Superior?

Today is the 240th anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. It’s unofficially National Vanilla Cupcake Day and National Forget-Me-Not Day. it’s the birthday of theologian Martin Luther, and actors Claude Rains and Richard Burton.

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