“They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters; These men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For at his word the stormy wind ariseth, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep.” —Psalm 107:23, 24
The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald,
November 10, 1975
he Great Lakes contain 21% of the world’s fresh water by volume—more than 94,000 square miles of surface. Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario interconnect with one another and access the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River and Seaway. They have often been called inland seas due to their rolling waves, high winds and currents, as well as ocean-like depths, not to mention about 35,000 islands. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater surface lake in the world and provides shore-line to Canada, and the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. It is larger than five New England states combined and receives water from more than three hundred rivers and streams. It is known for the ferocious storms that occasionally arise on its waters.
A 2010 satellite image of the Great Lakes region, showing Lakes Superior,
Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario (L-R)
Collectively there have been more than 6,000 ships sunk in the Great Lakes, with the loss of about 20,000 lives. Three hundred fifty of those ships went down in Lake Superior. The most famous of the lost ships, immortalized in song, was the iron ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank with all hands on November 10, 1975.
The Edmund Fitzgerald underway in 1971
The Lake Superior iron ranges supply about 85% of the iron ore demands of the United States iron and steel industry, which today makes it a two billion dollar industry. An iron ore range is an “elongate belt of sedimentary rocks in which one or more layers consists of a banded iron formation . . . on a scale of a few centimeters.” Most of the iron ranges in the three states were discovered in the 1840s and 50s, and by the 1880s were in full iron ore production. Lake Superior became the super-highway of transporting ore to the factories around the United States, from the foundries and blast furnaces of Gary, Indiana to those in Elyria, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. In the 1950s, the shipments were changed to taconite, a pelletized version of the best ores, created at the mines.
The probable respective routes of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Arthur M. Anderson the fateful night of November 10, 1975
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in 1958 and was the largest ore transporter on the Great Lakes. Her length was seven hundred twenty-nine feet and seventy-five at the beam—more than two football fields long. For seventeen years the “Titanic of the Great Lakes” shipped out of Duluth, delivering taconite pellets to Detroit, Toledo and other ports. By ore freighter standards the “Mighty Fitz” was positively luxurious with deep pile carpeting, tile bathrooms, and leather swivel chairs in the guest lounge. The crew quarters were air-conditioned and fully stocked pantries for the two dining rooms. The pilothouse boasted state-of-the-art nautical equipment and an elegant map room.