The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald is known throughout the world, and, even more than 40 years after its tragic end, continues to make news whenever there is another investigation into the cause for its sinking, or perhaps a new book, film or exhibit.
Shortly after 7 p.m. on Nov. 10, 1975, the 729-foot bulk cargo vessel Edmund Fitzgerald plummeted 530 feet to the bottom of Lake Superior just 17 miles from the entrance of Whitefish Point, Mich. She took with her all of the 29-man crew, including Capt. Ernest McSorley. No distress call was heard, and there were no witnesses.
It wasn’t the largest marine disaster on the lake (more than 45 lives were lost Nov. 7, 1885, when the Algoma wrecked near Isle Royale), but thanks largely to the haunting ballad, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, the Edmund Fitzgerald has become the most famous shipwreck of the Great Lakes.
A marine casualty report by U.S. Coast Guard put blame on the ship’s crew for improperly fastening the hatches, causing her to take on water during the violent seas. A controversial decision, it was rejected by most of the maritime community, many who felt the Fitzgerald, which was long overdue for repairs and refit, should not have been sailing that last voyage.
What really happened to the Fitzgerald during the brutal blizzard has become one of the great maritime mysteries. Many theories, books and studies have fueled the making of the legend and the public’s continuing interest. There was even an academic article, published in June 2013, examining why the public continues to be enthralled by the Fitzgerald—“Classical Tragedy and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Why the Legend Lives on” (Jacqueline Justice, Journal of American Culture, 2013).