When a lake, or group of lakes, are almost the size of a small sea, with all the storm possibilities that go with a body of water the size of the sea, shipwrecks and other disasters on the water are bound to occur. There is a stretch of land along the Michigan coast, known to many as the Shipwreck Coast or the Graveyard of the Great Lakes. It is an 80 mile stretch between Grand Island and Whitefish Point, and the vicious waters have sunk hundreds of ships. Edmund Fitzgerald, Cyprus, and Vienna are just a few of the vessels lost beneath the waves, where they took their crew to a watery grave…their names forever etched in maritime lore. Their wreckages lie in varying depths of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes.
My husband, Bob and I came up for a visit in 1975, and my Uncle Bill Spencer, the original family historian, told us about the shipwrecks of Lake Superior, and how there were many that could be seen pretty clearly when flying over the lake. I wished we could have taken such a flight, and seen those ships for myself. My thoughts drifted to the time of the wrecks, and how the accident happened and about the people who lost their lives there.
Lake Superior was known for its big storms, and when the November gales came it was treacherous, especially along the Shipwreck Coast. “This part of Lake Superior is particularly treacherous thanks to a unique combination of geography and storm patterns,” Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Michigan says. “Storms build up over Canada and the Great Plains. Their strong winds blow uninterrupted over 200 miles of open waters, building up enormous waves that drive ships into the coast or break them in half.” Fog, snow squalls, smoke from forest fires, traffic jams on the busy waters and human error add to sailing hazards.
One massive ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest to sail Lake Superior, nevertheless, it was a gale or a rogue wave that caused its sinking, but what it was is debated to this day. Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the tragedy in his song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The Fitzgerald’s 200 pound bronze bell was salvaged from the bottom of the lake later on, and and restored. The men were never recovered, because as most people know, Lake Superior never gives up her dead. The ship darted out on November 7, 1975, hoping to make Whitefish Point, but that was not to be. I think that just the questions behind the shipwrecks on Lake Superior makes the thousands of shipwrecks a huge mystery.
In September of 1975, my husband, Bob Schulenberg and I made a trip to Superior, Wisconsin to visit my Uncle Bill Spencer and his family. Uncle Bill and I had always been close, and it was a trip I thoroughly enjoyed. Part of the trip included driving around the shores of Lake Superior, while Uncle Bill gave us some history of the area, including the many shipwrecks that had occurred in the lake. Lake Superior is the largest fresh water lake in the world, and in reality it is more a sea than a lake. The lake experiences treacherous storms, especially in November when the Winter gales sweep over the it. With a huge shipping industry operating on the lake every year, accidents are bound to happen periodically, especially if a ship is caught out on the lake too late in the season. Listening to Uncle Bill tell us about the ghosts of Lake Superior, as the wrecks were called, and how you could see them beneath the water if you flew over the lake, peeked my curiosity about when and where the ships had lost their battles with the lake.
Just a month later, on November 10, 1975, while driving around the lake on his way back from a gun show, Uncle Bill experienced the gales of November from the lake shore, not knowing at the time that the SS Edmond Fitzgerald was fighting for its life, in a losing battle on the lake. The ship had made a run for it from Superior, Wisconsin, but found itself in serious trouble the next day. This was not going to be a battle the ship or her crew would survive. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald had once been the largest and fastest ship on the Great Lakes, at 729 feet in length. First launched in 1958, its service would be cut short that fateful day in 1975.
The ship left Burlington Northern Railroad Dock, Number 1 at Superior, Wisconsin on November 9th, carrying 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets. The next day it was hit with a storm packing 60 mile per hour winds and waves in excess of 15 feet. Captain Ernest McSorley steered north, trying to make it to safety in Whitefish Bay, but then the radar failed and the storm took out the power at Whitefish Bay taking with it Whitefish Point’s radio beacon. McSorley was traveling blind. The huge wave swept over the ship, and it began taking on water. A ship taking on water is never a good thing, but when you add to that 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets, that ship is in trouble. Another ship, the Anderson stayed in radio contact with the Fitzgerald, trying to help it reach the bay, but to no avail. Just after 7pm on November 10th, 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, the Fitzgerald made its last radio transmission. The ship, sunk lower and lower from the added weight of the water until its bow pitched down into the lake and the vessel was unable to recover. The ship broke in two, either from waves and water or on its way to the bottom, taking with it cargo and crew. None of the 29 men aboard survived.
It’s not hard to imagine why the shipwrecks are called the Ghosts of Lake Superior, because many, if not all of them took with them the men and women who had been their crew. Most of those lost souls are still there in a watery grave, because it is too difficult to recover the bodies. The Edmund Fitzgerald now lies under 530 feet of water, broken in two sections. It is just one of at least 52 ships that litter the bottom of the lake. On July 4, 1995, the ship’s bell was recovered from the wreck, and a replica, engraved with the names of the crew members who perished in this tragedy, was left in its place. The original bell is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in Michigan.