The SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was America’s largest freighter ship at the time and remains the largest ship to sink into the Great Lakes. The ship was huge and important for transporting taconite ore and iron pellets, which were mined in and around Lake Superior. It is important to look at the story of this shipwreck as we can learn a lot through this tragedy. By looking at the maritime history of this shipwreck, we can avoid such fatalities in the future by improving sailing regulations and technology. This famous shipwreck was popularized through pop culture through music as well.

Image from

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the largest freight ships in the Midwest. It measured over 729 feet long and weighed more than 13,600 tons (Tikkanen, A.).
November 9, 1975, was the fateful last voyage of the Fitzgerald. The 17-year-old ship left Lake Superior in Wisconsin with a crew of 28 men on board led by captain Ernest M. McSorley.
Ten days prior to the departure, the Fitzgerald went under routine inspection and the inspectors noticed minor cracks to the four hatches. They decided to continue on the next trip anyway and repair these in the winter. The day before the departure on November 8th, the National Weather Service reported “a typical November storm.”

The ship was planning to travel over the Oklahoma Panhandle that was moving northeast (Kantar, 3). The next day the ship departed on a seemingly sunny day carrying over 26,000 tons of taconite pellets. The ship was big on transporting these taconite ore and iron pellets, which were mined in and around Lake Superior.

Little did they know they would come into collision with one of the worst storms recorded in the Great Lakes. The ship captain Ernest McSorley was a renowned sailor with over 44 years of experience. He was one of the youngest men to become a captain on the great lakes. The crew had men who were experienced sailors and were ready to go.

Image from The Great Lakes Museum.

Just a few hours later, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald smoothly took to the seas on a radio call with the Anderson crew. The ocean had a storm with strong winds, snow, and huge waves crashing on the dock. The Anderson crew also said that the Fitzgerald had to cross a shallow area of the lake and it would be very dangerous. It was extremely hard to navigate through this shoal and the winds banged the Fitzgerald along the bottom. The Anderson crew then reported that they received a call from the captain that a fence rail was down, and two vents were broken, taking in water.

The ship most likely suffered damages and hit its hull on the rocky bottom. With 16-foot waves and 50 mile per hour winds, the crew decided going on lifeboats or rafts would be too dangerous and made a last-ditch effort to get to Whitefish Bay. About an hour later the Anderson crew realized they had lost their radar on the ship. Since the radar was the only thing guiding the Fitzgerald through the storm, it was now virtually blind and helpless. After unsuccessful signals and options from contacting other ships, contact with the Fitzgerald was restored.

The crew reported to be heading for Whitefish Bay, where they could anchor down onto shore. They also reported to be “holding their own” and trying to keep the water out of the broken vents. This unfortunately was the last time the Fitzgerald was ever heard from again as the crew of 29 people and the entire freighter ship sank tragically into the depths of the sea. The ship officially sank on Lake Superior, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan on November 10th, 1975.
Historians and experts believe that the Fitzgerald sank due to not only the broken vents, but water coming in abruptly from the hatches down near the cargo hold. This made the ship lose buoyancy or its ability to float. Since the ship was so massive, it is hypothesized that it dove straight down very quickly.


Back in 1975 the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the greatest ships and cost over 8 million dollars to build.
It was equipped with a lot of emergency and lifesaving equipment. Surprisingly it had no depth gauge or fathometer, which are means to measure how deep the waters are beneath the ship. On board the ship had two 50-man lifeboats and two 25-man inflatable life rafts. These rafts were unusable though, because the storm was so powerful (Kantar).

Image of modern boat technology. Sourced from BoatUS.

Today, we have a lot more technology to prevent future disasters like this. According to an article by the Detroit news, future disasters like this can be stopped today because of today’s sophisticated weather forecasting systems that can accurately predict weather many days before ships depart from their ports. On top of that state-of-the-art radar can track water depth and GPS systems have been upgraded heavily, something the Fitzgerald did not have as it collided with the shallow shoals of Lake Superior (Fleming). More Indepth searches and inspections are now performed on the inside and outside of vessels today before they are clear to depart. It’s essential to note that while technology can contribute to maritime safety, unexpected and extreme weather conditions remain a significant challenge for any vessel, and safety measures and decision-making during such conditions are crucial.

Sketch image of the ship layout sourced from the U. S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation report.

With this image from the U. S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation’s report, we can see how intricately designed the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was. Still, just a slight rupture in one of the bottom cargo loading areas or a strong storm was enough to take it down. Today ships are still weary of bad weather conditions and try to avoid them as much as possible.

About the Authors

Amir Etemadi

Amir is a first-year student from Gainesville, FL, at Carleton College. He plans to major in Biology and minor in Japanese. His love for marine biology, aquatic environments, and fishkeeping inspired him to want to study Maritime history and the blue humanities. He chose to research the SS Edmund Fitzgerald because of its ties to the Midwest and Minnesota, where he goes to college.

Bryn Ashland

Bryn is a first-year student from Mankato, MN, at Carleton College. She plans to Major in Biology. A Gordon Lightfoot fan, she was interested in this project because of its cultural impacts in the Midwest and in the USA.