What is the Edmund Fitzgerald?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2019
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The Edmund Fitzgerald was a ship which plied the waters of the Great Lakes between 1958 and 1975. This ship is most famous for its untimely end, which spurred a number of musical and theatrical tributes. The ship's brass bell was recovered in 1995 and used to establish a memorial to the 29 crew members who lost their lives aboard the ship when it went down with all hands.

Owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, the Edmund Fitzgerald was named for the chairman of the board, and it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. In fact, the contract to build the ship actually stipulated that it must be the biggest ship on the Lakes, and the Edmund Fitzgerald went on to set several cargo records in addition to being the biggest ship around. Hundreds of trips were made with various cargoes across the Great Lakes before the fateful day of 10 November 1975.

The ship was loaded with a cargo of taconite in Superior, Wisconsin, and it set sail in companionship with the Arthur M. Anderson. The two ships encountered heavy weather as they progressed, radioing back and forth about weather concerns, and the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald reported that the ship was listing and encountering heavy waves, but that they were "holding [their] own." At around 7:00 PM, the Edmund Fitzgerald sent its last radio transmission, and it dropped off the Anderson's radar shortly thereafter.


After trying to raise the ship on their radio, the crew of the Anderson reported the Edmund Fitzgerald missing, and joined a search party to look for survivors. None were found, with the wreckage of the ship later being located in two pieces with the use of sonar. Almost immediately, speculation began to swirl about why the Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk, and why no distress calls were issued, setting the stage for a mystery which endures to this day.

Several theories about the wreck of the "Fitz," as the handsome ship was known, have been posited. These theories range from suggestions that the ship had a faulty radar system and the crew were relying on bad charts to suggestions that hatches were not properly secured, causing the ship to take on water and eventually sink. Many of the explanations for the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald absolve the ship's owners of blame, which may have been a tactic on the part of canny public relations staff to avoid the risk of a liability suit.


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