Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Hey, Porter.

Even on the banks of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, Cleveland has an inferiority problem. Erie is the smallest of the five major Great Lakes, and the shallowest. But great it was, even if it was in series ecological peril in the mid-70s.

Cleveland remained an important port in those days. My grandfather was in the merchant marines before he had children and settled for a desk job at Cleveland Trust. And even after sailing the world, he always insisted Lake Erie was the roughest, most dangerous sea of them all.

My education of the map of the Great Lakes began with Holling Clancy Holling's 1941 classic Paddle-To-The-Sea, the story of a First Nations boy, living north of Lake Superior in Nipigon Country, who carves a small wooden canoe with "Indian" and sets it on a journey to, hopefully, makes its way though all of the lakes and out to the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, it is not the story of the boy at all, but of his wooden "paddle person" who he names Paddle-to-the-Sea.

My father read me this book, and through it developed unshakeable, relevant visual associations, like the fact that Superior is shaped like a wolf's head, or that Huron looks like a trapper with his pack. Erie, is shaped like a lump of coal ... which is stupid because anything could be shaped like a lump of coal, but it did impress upon me the importance of coal in the economy of our region.

Another powerful image of the Great Lakes from my youth is that modern sea-dirge, Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, released in August 1976 on the LP Summertime Dream.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee.
The opening chords are still chilling to me. Providing the ancient name for Lake Superior gives the tale an historic, epic tone.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.
Now I'm thinking of pirates. It resonates like an old sailing tale, but with familiar place names like "Wisconsin" and of course, "Cleveland."

And thank you, Mr. Lightfoot, for making the word Cleveland sing so clear and crisp during an era when it was more often used on The Tonight Show as a punchline.

The storm whips up, and man is helpless against the elements. It could have been anyone. It could have been my grandfather. 29 sailors perished about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on the night of November 10, 1975 and, inspired by a Newsweek article on the tragedy, Lightfoot had written the song before the end of the year. It reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The "Mighty Fitz" had been launched in 1958 and was at that time the largest freighter on the Great Lakes. Its main cargo was taconite -- iron ore, "26,000 tons or more" -- though it was fully-loaded from Duluth and headed for Detroit, not Cleveland, when the witch of November came stealing. "Big Fitz's" final communication came minutes before it sank, at 7:10 PM when Captain Ernest M. McSorley reported, "We are holding our own."

Steven Dietz wrote a play about the wreck called Ten November but if it's been performed in the Cleveland area, I have no clue. Someone should get on that.


  1. More recently, in Columbus, Theatre Daedalus playwright Michael Parsons wrote a play about the Edmund Fitzgerald called 29 Bells:

    I saw a reading of it at CSU - he was part of Mike Geither's playwrighting class.

  2. S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald 36 Year Anniversary
    November 10, 2011

    RIVER ROUGE — A memorial service is planned for Thursday November 10, 2011 to remember the 29 men who died when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.
    The ceremony is set for 6 to 8 p.m. and the heated tent open at 4:30 p.m. for viewing Edmund Fitzgerald artifacts, near the Mariners Memorial Lighthouse at Belanger Park, off Belanger Park Drive and Marion.
    The event is held in River Rouge because that’s the city where the vessel was built in 1957 and ’58.
    Several speakers will give their memories of the ship, including people who helped construct it and relatives of some of the deceased crewmen.
    Artifacts, photographs and videos also will be on display and you can talk to the Fitz Ship Builders, past Crew Members and Fitz Family Members.
    At 7:10 p.m. — the time the ship sank — a wreath will be tossed into the Detroit River. A bell will be rung 29 times in memory of each person who died.
    A plaque presentation and lantern lighting is planned. Food and Refreshments will be provided free of charge.
    Event organizer Roscoe Clark has a Web site devoted to the vessel, which contains several video clips and photos of the ship, at
    Earlier in the day, an Edmund Fitzgerald open house will be held from 4 to 5 p.m. at the River Rouge Historical Museum, 10750 W. Jefferson Ave.
    This year, the service will be web cast free of charge for those viewers all across the US and Canada. Go to the official web site
    For more information and location call Roscoe Clark at (810) 519-2148.
    This is a special program held each year and is free of charge.

  3. Thank you for this information.