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Back Roads Bill: Exploring a 48-year-old unsolved mystery

This week Bill takes us to the Edmund Fitzgerald from two vantage points

From a Canadian perspective her story is surpassed in books, film and media only by that of the Titanic. You most likely know the lyrics: “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down. Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee…”

The late and great Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot inspired popular interest in this vessel with his 1976 ballad, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. You might as well listen before you read on.

There is a must see museum on the American side but the next best tribute is found on a trail north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

The forty-eight-year-old story of the Edmund Fitzgerald story is well known. The following is condensed from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The Great Lakes freighter was lost with her entire crew of 29 men on Lake Superior in 1975, 27 kilometres (17 miles) north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan but in Ontario waters.

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was conceived as a business enterprise of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Northwestern Mutual contracted with Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan to construct a “maximum sized” Great Lakes bulk carrier. Her keel was laid on Aug. 7, 1957 as Hull No. 301.

Named after the President and Chairman of the Board of Northwestern Mutual, Fitzgerald was launched June 8, 1958, at River Rouge, Michigan. Northwestern Mutual placed her under permanent charter to the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, Cleveland, Ohio. At 729 feet (222 m) and 13,632 gross tons she was the largest ship on the Great Lakes, for thirteen years, until 1971.

The Fitzgerald’s normal course during her productive life took her between Silver Bay, Minnesota, where she loaded taconite, to steel mills on the lower lakes in the Detroit and Toledo area. She was usually empty on her return trip to Silver Bay. On Nov. 9, 1975, Fitzgerald was to transport a load of taconite from Superior, Wisconsin, to Zug Island, Detroit, Michigan.

The final voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald began Nov. 9, 1975, at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No.1, Superior, Wisconsin. Captain Ernest M. McSorley had loaded the ship with 26,116 long tons of taconite pellets, made of processed iron ore, heated and rolled into marble-size balls. Departing Superior about 2:30 p.m., she was soon joined by the Arthur M. Anderson, which had departed Two Harbors, Minnesota under Captain Bernie Cooper. The two ships were in radio contact. The Fitzgerald being the faster took the lead, with the distance between the vessels ranging from 10 to 15 miles.

Aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes from the great plains, Captain McSorley and Captain Cooper agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. This took them between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula. They would later make a turn to the southeast to eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point.

Weather conditions continued to deteriorate. Gale warnings had been issued at 7 p.m. on Nov. 9, upgraded to storm warnings early in the morning of Nov. 10. Conditions were bad, with winds gusting to 50 knots and seas 12 to 16 feet…

The ship eventually sank in Canadian (Ontario) waters 530 feet (160 metres) in the early evening of that day.

The Coast Guard conducted an extensive and thorough search. On Nov. 14, a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector located a strong contact 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. During the following three days, the Coast Guard cutter Woodrush, using a sidescan sonar, located two large pieces of wreckage in the same area. Another sonar survey was conducted Nov. 22-25. It was the beginning of a heritage legend.

The Coast Guard concluded there were several factors that caused the Fitzgerald to sink.


Whitefish Point is the site of the Whitefish Point Light Station and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. It is about 75 minutes or 72 miles (115) from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, northeast of Newberry.

Corey Adkins is the Communications/Content Director for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLHS). He said Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is one of Michigan’s most popular tourism destinations, attracting over 75,000 visitors each year. Museum guests discover the dramatic stories of shipwreck and survival on the Great Lakes at Whitefish Point, a National Historic Site. Whitefish Point is also home to the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior, which has been in operation since 1861, the same year that President Abraham Lincoln took office!

“The reason the Fitzgerald is so revered is because it’s a mystery as to why the ship went down with loss of all life…never explained, no reasons. The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald remains the most mysterious and controversial of all shipwreck tales heard around the Great Lakes. Only God and the guys on board will ever know and that sticks in people’s minds and because of Gordon Lightfoot’s song it only helps keep the story alive.”

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) has conducted three underwater expeditions to the wreck, 1989, 1994, and 1995. One of the highlights is the recovered ship’s bell, one of the most photographed items in the museum’s collection. There is an annual bell ringing ceremony.


On the Canadian side north of Sault Ste. Marie and just beyond the main campground of Pancake Bay Provincial Park. Is the Lookout Trail on the north side of Highway 17.

A clearly marked trail-head sign with route information and a map marks the start of the trail. It is tranquil walk through towering maple trees leading you to spectacular views of Lake Superior, as far out as the resting position of the Edmund Fitzgerald, it is called the Edmond Fitzgerald Lake Superior Lookout. There are several interpretative signs that explains the history of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The hike to the lookout and back is approximately 6 km (2-3 hours, return). There are two sidebar routes to Pancake Falls (10.5 km) or Tower Lakes (13.5 km). The trail is particularly scenic during the fall colour season and that is just around the corner. Here’s the map as you sing along.

Superior, they said, never gives up her dead. When the gales of November come early…’

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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