Gordon Lightfoot's 'Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' still haunts, as do the ship's last radio calls

Lightfoot's mournful ballad memorialized the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975. What happened is still a mystery, ever since the last communications from the doomed freighter.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior Nov. 10, 1975.
Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

Editor's note: This archival article was first published in Nov. 6, 2019. It has been edited to update the timeliness of some references.

The song starts with whining chords and an eerie first verse:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee." The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," by Gordon Lightfoot, who died on Monday at age 84, introduced most of the world to the tragedy at sea more than 47 years ago that still haunts many , but it remains a vivid memory for many in the Great Lakes region of the Midwest.

Largest on the lakes

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was christened on June 8, 1958, and named after Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company's newly elected chairman of the board. The company had contracted an engineering firm the year before to make the ship the largest ship on the Great Lakes.


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Over the next 17 years, the Fitzgerald started breaking records for the largest loads of freight carried on the lakes. Not without its troubles, the ship suffered damages in the late '60s and early '70s, but remained an important player in Great Lakes transportation.

The last voyage

Around 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 9, 1975, the ship was loaded with 26,000 tons of taconite pellets and departed Superior, Wisconsin, en route to Zug Island on the Detroit River. By that afternoon, the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for the area that the Fitzgerald was sailing.

Another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, was about 15 miles behind the Fitzgerald and was the ship most in touch with the doomed freighter throughout the next 24 harrowing hours.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was christened in 1958 and broke records for the largest loads carried by a freighter on the Great Lakes. Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

By the early morning hours of Nov. 10, the Edmund Fitzgerald reported winds up to 60 mph and 10-foot-high waves.

This is a partial account of the last communications from the Edmund Fitzgerald and other ships on Lake Superior Nov. 10. For a complete transcript visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald online :

3:30 p.m. - Radio transmission between Edmund Fitzgerald Captain Ernest McSorley (C.M.) and Arthur M. Anderson Captain Jesse Cooper (C.C.) as the ships attempt to make it to Whitefish Bay, Mich. to ride out the storm:

C.M.: "Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I'm checking down. Will you stay by me til I get to Whitefish?"

C.C.: "Charlie on that Fitzgerald. Do you have your pumps going?"


C.M.: "Yes, both of them."

Between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m. - Radio transmission between the salt water vessel Avafors and the Fitzgerald:

Avafors: "Fitzgerald, this is the Avafors. I have the Whitefish light now but still am receiving no beacon. Over."
Fitzgerald: "I'm very glad to hear it."
Avafors: "The wind is really howling down here. What are the conditions where you are?"
Fitzgerald: (Indiscernable shouts heard by the Avafors.) "DON'T LET NOBODY ON DECK!"

Avafors: "What's that, Fitzgerald? Unclear. Over."

Undated photo of Edmund Fitzgerald in the Duluth Ship Canal. Courtesy UWS archives.

Fitzgerald: "I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I've ever been in."

Avafors: "If I'm correct, you have two radars."

Fitzgerald: "They're both gone."

7:10 p.m - Radio transmission between the Anderson and the Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald is still being followed by the Arthur M. Anderson. They are about 10 miles behind the Fitzgerald.


Anderson: " Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problem?"

Fitzgerald: " We are holding our own."

Anderson: "Okay, fine. I'll be talking to you later."

They did not speak again. Sometime between 7:20 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. the Edmund Fitzgerald vanished and sank. All 29 men on board were lost.

To hear more communication between the Arthur M. Anderson and the Coast Guard visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Still no answers

The following year, the wreck was found about 530 feet down in Lake Superior just 17 miles short of Whitefish Point.

In 1995, the bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was raised and restored and is now at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point. A new bell was placed on the sunken ship with the names of the 29 men who died engraved on it.


edmund 3.jpg
At the request of family members of her crew, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald’s 200-pound bronze bell was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society on July 4, 1995. A new bell, containing the names of the 29 men lost at sea, was placed on the ship. Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

The exact cause of the wreck has still not been determined. However, many theories point to high waves swamping the ship and breaking it apart. Others believe the ship bottomed out while others say previous structural damage caused the sinking.

Memorials and remembrances are held throughout the Great Lakes area on the Nov. 10 anniversary of the shipwreck.

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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