47 years ago today the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior.
In this thread I'm going to discuss a few things:
- The actual story
- The Gordon Lightfoot song
- The different roles of an artist/storyteller and an educator
- Why it's ok to say we were wrong
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was an American Great Lakes freighter that launched on June 7th, 1958.
She was one of the very first ships to be built to the maximum St. Lawrence Seaway size of 75 feet (23 m) wide, and at the time the biggest, making her the Queen of the Lakes.
The ship was named after the president of Northwestern Mutual, the company that commissioned her building.
Mr. Edmund Fitzgerald hated this but basically got outvoted. When his wife Elizabeth christened the ship with champagne, it took her 3 tries to break the bottle on the bow.
Nicknames for this ship included (Mighty or Big) Fitz, Pride of the American Side, Toledo Express and the Titanic of the Great Lakes.
Freshwater freighters had an intended lifespan of around 50 years.
Her career hauling taconite (a type of iron ore) lasted just 17 years.
Her typical route was from Duluth, Minnesota to Detroit or Toledo and took about 5 days. She usually did just short of 50 of these trips per season.
Her full speed was about 4.2 knots or 26.2 km/h.
Fitz was said to have a deadweight capacity of 26 417 220 kg at launch but loved to break records (mostly her own) and had a record hauling weight of 27 841 717 kg (set in 1969).
Loading her up with taconite took about 4.5 hrs; unloading about 14 hrs.
Early captain of Fitz, Captain Peter Pulcer, was well-known for playing music through the ship's intercom system nearly 24/7 and entertaining tourists with ship facts through a bullhorn when passing through locks!
On Nov. 9th, 1975 Fitz left Superior, Wisconsin on her way to Zug Island (near Detroit) under Captain Ernest M. McSorley's command with a load of 26 535 081 kg.
When she left, the weather forecast was normal.
By 7 pm @NWS had issued a gale warning for all of Lake Superior.
Fitz encountered a winter storm at about 1 a.m. November 10th. They had already altered course to find some shelter against the Ontario shore. They reported winds of 52 knots (96 km/h) and waves 10 feet (3 m) high.
There were 2 other ships near the Edmund Fitzgerald that night. The SS Wilfred Sykes departed Superior about 2 hours after Fitz, and followed her radio conversation with the SS Arthur M. Anderson, which sailed close to her until about 3 p.m.
Fitz's Captain McSorley was not known for being cautious. Hence why it was surprising to Captain Paquette of Wilfred Sykes when at 1 a.m. he heard McSorley tell the Arthur M. Anderson that he was slowing down and seeking some relief from a nearby isle.
At 2:45 p.m. the Arthur M. Anderson lost site of Fitz.
At 3:30 p.m. McSorley radioed them to say they were taking on water and had lost two vent covers and a fence railing.
At 4:10 p.m. Fitz reported a radar failure to them.
The Arthur M. Anderson logged sustained winds as high as 58 knots (107 km/h) at 4:52 p.m., and waves as high as 25 feet (7.6 m) by 6 p.m.
Wind gusts were as high as 70-75 knot (130-139 km/h) and rogue waves as high as 35 feet (11 m).
At 7:10 p.m. the Arthur M. Anderson radioed Fitz and asked how they were faring.
Captain McSorley reported, "We are holding our own."
The Edmund Fitzgerald was never heard from again.
The Arthur M. Anderson made the first distress call at 7:39 p.m. Fitz was first officially reported missing at 9:03 p.m.
The US Coast Guard didn't have available search and rescue boats, so they asked the Arthur M. Anderson to turn around and look for survivors.
At 10:30 p.m. the USCG asked any ships in the area to assist.
Debris was found, but never any crew.
29 people, ranging in age from 20 to 63 lost their lives.
The wreck was discovered on November 14th.
It has never been definitively determined what caused the disaster.
Now onto the Gordon Lightfoot part of this thread.
First of all, if you've never listened to his haunting ballad, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, please do.

It's his second most successful single.
The influence of Gordon Lightfoot on folk music, both Canadian and otherwise, can't really be overstated. He's a folk-rock legend and Canada's greatest songwriter. A true national treasure.
His songs have been recorded by incredible names: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan, Eric Clapton, Olivia Newton-John, Jimmy Buffett, Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, Harry Belafonte, and so many more.
But one of my favourite things about Gordon Lightfoot is his simultaneous capacity to know when to change things, and when not to.
There are a slew of inaccuracies in The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald. Fitz was not "fully loaded for Cleveland" but Zug Island.
The ceremony for the departed took place at the Mariners' Church of Detroit, not the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral.
But Gordon had artistic license, and he used it, and we got a better ballad for it.
He once said that he agonized over inaccuracies in the song until his producer advised him to just tell a story.
Nonetheless, since its release, Gordon has altered 2 lyrics when he performs live.
In March 2010, Lightfoot changed the line "At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in" to "At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then" to reflect the finding that there was no crew error in the sinking.
At some point, a parishioner from the Mariners' Church of Detroit reached out to him and reported that their hall was not "musty" as he had sung. Lightfoot changed the lyric to "In a rustic old hall".
To me, this is one of the best examples I've encountered of when it's important to be truthful in art.
If Gordon had determined to make no factual error, we very well may never have heard this soul-wrenching ballad.
Overwhelmed with accuracy, he may never have produced this art.
And yet he made those changes.
But he made them as a mark of respect. It's his song, yes, but it is a tale of real people, real places and real events.
Gordon Lightfoot never claimed to be a historian, and holding him to the standard of one is ludicrous.
As a science communicator, I am highly concerned with accuracy. But there is a place and a time, and most of the time it's not in art.
Movies can blur details and change specifics in the furtherance of artistic expression and making a point.
Documentaries can not.
So in summary, let artists be artists. Let's not get so bogged down in details that we lose the expression and wonder that makes art so magic.
If art happens to be highly accurate, awesome! But to hold it to standards never intended for it can only lead to loss.
At the same time, it's ok to admit when we're wrong. It's ok to make changes and alterations. It does not make art lesser to do so. Particularly when real people are involved, doing right by them is more important than preserving art as it was published.
There's no one size fits all approach. We have to play it by ear and make it up as we go along and it's probably going to be messy at times.
But let's not pretend that being right is the most important thing in all circumstances.
The 2 other ships I mentioned here, the Arthur M. Anderson and the Wilfred Sykes are still in operation today. Arthur is currently near Sarnia, en route from Detroit to Stoneport MI. Wilfred is south of Detroit en route from Burns Harbour near Chicago to Ashtabula near Cleveland.

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Great thread. It's chance-met stuff like this that I will miss if/when the Muskpocalpyse reaches its crescendo.