Cleveland Comhrá: “The Mighty Fitz”
by Bob Carney
“Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.”
– Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Late one evening, I was listening to Christy Moore’s CD “Ride On,” in particular, the tune “Back Home in Derry.” The lyrics were penned by Bobby Sands and were set to the music of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.
Lightfoot had composed and performed his tune to commemorate the sinking and loss of lives on the bulk ore carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975.
He was inspired to write the tune after reading a Newsweek article on the event, “The Cruelest Month.” He considers it to be his finest work and became the second biggest hit of his career.
But who was Edmund Fitzgerald?
Who was Edmind Fitzgerald and why was an ore freighter named for him?
John Fitzgerald was born in Ireland in the year 1833. Like many of his generation there, he emigrated to America during The Great Hunger, eventually making his way to Wisconsin.
John found work on the water, becoming a lake captain. He married Josephine Porter, who died in childbirth a few years later. He then married Josephine’s sister Lydietta. Of the eleven children he fathered, nine perished before reaching the age of five. One of the two that survived to adulthood was William Edmund Fitzgerald, born in 1859.
William also made his living in shipping, eventually owning and operating as president of The Milwaukee Drydock Co., which built and repaired ships. His son, Edmund Bacon Fitzgerald, was born March 1, 1895.
In his professional career, Edmund became an insurance executive, becoming a trustee of Northwestern Mutual in 1933 and moved up to vice-president that same year. He became president of the company in 1947. In 1958 he was elected chairman of the board and served in that position until he retired in 1960.
Northwestern Mutual had invested in the iron and mineral industries on a very large scale. The company built the 729 ft. Edmund Fitzgerald, an ore carrier. She was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes when she was launched in 1958.
The ship’s estimated worth at that time was $7 million (about $48.8 million in todays dollar). She was designed and built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works to be within one foot of the maximum length allowed for the soon to be completed Saint Lawrence Seaway. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was the first investment of this kind by an insurance company.
A Five-Star Ship
By freighter standards, she was a five-star ship, with carpeting, tiled restrooms, guest staterooms for passengers and air conditioning, even in the crew’s quarters. She had a large galley and a fully stocked pantry.
Originally coal fired, she was converted to burn oil during the winter of 1971-72. After construction was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed it’s charter with The Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Co., based in Cleveland. For seventeen years , the “Mighty Fitz” carried iron ore from mines near Duluth to iron works in Detroit, Toledo and other Great Lakes ports. She had earned her reputation as a reliable workhorse.
On the Day
On the afternoon of November 9, 1975, she left the port in Superior, Wisconsin, bound for Detroit ( not Cleveland as Lightfoot wrote). Captain Ernest M. McSorley was a veteran mariner with over forty years experience on the oceans and the Great Lakes. He had assumed command of the Fitz at the start of the 1972 shipping season and had commanded nine ships before the Fitzgerald.
McSorley had turned sixty-three years old a month and a half earlier and was due to retire at the end of the ’75 season; he was looking forward to returning to his home in the Toledo suburb of Ottawa Hills, Ohio. He was respected as a superb heavy weather captain.
The weather turned over night, with gale force winds, 60-70mph, driving rains and thirty to thirty-five foot waves. McSorley was in contact with the freighter SS Arthur M Anderson and had reported “being in difficulty.”
The Anderson was following the Fitzgerald and the two ships were monitering each other’s progress through the storm, albeit with some difficulty. Between the weather and the constant rise and fall of the ships in the monstrous waves, radio and even radar was sketchy at best. The last message the Anderson received from Captain McSorley was “We are holding our own.”
Shortly after 7:10 pm, the Anderson lost all contact with the Fitzgerald. Search efforts were futile and incredibly dangerous, but the Anderson searched the area where they believed the ship had gone down. They found no survivors, all twenty-nine on board were lost.
Many theories have been presented as to why the Fitzgerald went down, but even to this day after extensive study of the wreck, the exact cause is unkown. The sinking led to changes in shipping practices and regulations on the Great Lakes that included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems and increased freeboard.
Freeboard is a term relating to the height that a ship sits in the water. Increased freeboard, increases the drag on the vessel compromising speed but reduces the likelihood of taking on water. More frequent inspections would also be required. The most well known disaster on the Great Lakes has, in this way, benifited all those that make their livelihood on our lakes.
For further information:
Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals by William Ratigan; The Wave by Susan Casey; or visit Steamship William G Mather Museum, also built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works, in 1925.