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No. 1378:
S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

Today, just a lake! The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Great Lakes are just that to most of us. They're just lakes. When I was a child, I'd visit the north shore of Lake Superior in the summertime. As its gentle waves lapped at my feet, it seemed just like ten thousand other Minnesota lakes. The only difference was that you couldn't see the other side. It revealed none of the majesty or the menace of the open seas. Yet the voyage from Duluth to the eastern end of Lake Ontario is almost a thousand miles.

The Sault Ste Marie locks opened in 1855; and they connected Lake Superior to Lake Huron. Iron ore began moving from Minnesota's Mesabi Range eastward to the steel mills. As shipping began in earnest, we saw why the Indians named Lake Superior Gitche Gumee -- why they held it in awe. Ships found themselves sailing a treacherous ocean. Today, we count some six thousand Great Lakes shipwrecks, and November seems to be the worst month. On November 13, 1913, a single storm sank 12 ships and killed 250 people. The great blizzard of November 11, 1940 (which I remember from my childhood in Minnesota), sank two ships and killed 46 people.

The largest ship went down on November 10th, 1975. It was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. The day before, the 17-year-old Fitzgerald had left Superior, Wisconsin, loaded with almost 30,000 tons of iron ore pellets called taconite. In her star-crossed life the Fitzgerald had run aground once, she'd collided with the walls of the locks twice, she'd lost an anchor on one trip and suffered structural cracking on another. This time she left Superior with two damaged hatches. And twenty minutes after she sailed, gale warnings were posted. Just past midnight, winds were reaching sixty miles per hour and driving ten-foot waves.

Typical ore boat of the same size and vintage as the Edmund Fitzgerald.
(Photo by John Lienhard in 2013)

By the afternoon of November 10th, the Fitzgerald had suffered more damage and was running both her 7000-gallon-per-minute pumps. Then she lost the single antenna that served both her radar units. So she radioed the Whitefish Point radio station and asked for help with navigation. Now her troubles really began compounding.

The Whitefish radio beacon was out. The Fitzgerald might've been helped by radio equipment aboard an ocean ship that was in port at Whitewater. But that ship's captain scoffed at the storm. He said, "This is just a lake," and he sailed off.

So the Fitzgerald blindly rode 16-foot waves. She began to list. With water washing over her wheelhouse the captain sent a last tight-lipped message: "We're holding our own." Then the Fitzgerald and her 29-person crew vanished. The following spring, search boats found what was left of her on the bottom. Like the Titanic, she'd split in two as she sank. The stern section lay upside down, the bow, right side up.

Gitche Gumee had claimed her 6000th ship, and we're left with those words, "It's just a lake." After 118 years this ocean, posing as a lake, was still deceiving us with her placid everyday face.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Morris, K. and Rowlands, P., Exploring Shipwrecks. New York: Gallery Books, 1988, pp. 62-79.

For more on the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, see the Wikipedia entry about it.

My thanks to Jim Bell, KUHF-FM Radio, for suggesting the topic.

For more on Great Lakes wrecks, see Episode 333.

Gitche Gumee was made into common currency by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha. (see, e.g., New York: Hurst & Co. Pubs., 1898) It derives from the Obijway language term for the Lake: Otchipwe-kitchi-gami.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis,
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

No episode about the Edmund Fitzgerald is complete without a link to Gordon Lightfoot's song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.


One of two lifboats from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Both floated ashore, damaged and empty.
(Photo by John Lienhard)