Arriving at Whitefish Point, the words of a familiar song play inside my head:
"The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy…"
Music fans likely will remember these words from a folk song written and recorded by Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Released in1976 on his album “Summertime Dream,” it became a hit, reaching No. 1 in Canada and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. Having heard these chilling words as a child, I often wondered what lake would never give up its dead. Little did I know that question would lead me to stand on the shores of Lake Superior at Whitefish Point in early November some forty years later remembering the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Shipwreck enthusiasts, historians, and Midwesterners know her story all too well. On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald and its entire crew disappeared into the icy depths of Lake Superior in one of the most puzzling shipwrecks of its time. Seemingly vanishing into thin air, the 729 foot freighter from Milwaukee, Wisconsin was later found broken in two at a depth of 530 feet about 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point in Canadian waters. 48 years later, questions still remain as to what caused this huge ship to sink.
According to Frederick Stonehouse, author of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” upon discovery of the wreckage, the United States Coast Guard conducted an extensive investigation. With no eye witnesses left to tell their story, the Coast Guard had to rely on the testimony of others not on the ship. Members of the Arthur M. Anderson who had been in direct communication with the Fitzgerald were interviewed, as well as others who assisted in the search for the missing ship. The official Coast Guard investigation concluded that the most probable cause of the ship’s sinking was the loss of buoyancy and stability brought on by flooding of the cargo hold. While not explicitly stated in the report as one of the contributing factors, it is worth noting that a storm of record breaking proportions was raging on Lake Superior when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down.
While several theories have been floated over the years in an attempt to explain the Fitzgerald’s sinking, including the possibility of a seiche and wave phenomenon known as “the three sisters,” none have been so controversial as the one posed by Jay Gourley. Author of “The Great Lakes Triangle,” Gourley claims the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald is so bizarre that no worldly explanation exists. Instead, he suggests the loss can be attributed to more mysterious forces at work, such as the ship passing through an alternate dimension or perhaps alien beings.
Not surprisingly, Jay Gourley admits that he has no idea what caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to sink. To this day, nobody, not even the experts, have been able to pinpoint exactly what happened to her. It’s almost as if the ship did succumb to some mysterious force. Almost.
Standing at Whitefish Point, I discover an interesting plaque. It states that the waters off Whitefish Point are known as the graveyard of the Great Lakes. There have been more wrecks here than any other part of the lake. With over 300 shipwrecks and 320 lives lost between the first known wreck in 1816 to the wreck of the Fitzgerald in 1975, this part of Lake Superior happens to be one of the most dangerous areas for ships!
According to the plaque, the reason so many ships have gone down in this area is three-fold:
- As this part of the lake narrows like a funnel, it gets very congested with ship traffic trying to get through.
- Poor visibility caused by fog, forest fires, and snow increases the likelihood for an accident.
- With over 200 miles of open water, the seas can build up into something terribly ferocious during a Superior “Northwestern” storm.
This last reason doesn’t surprise me. Having grown up literally across the street from Lake Michigan, I recall countless times where I have seen waves on the lake that looked like they could swallow up ships if they wanted. With Lake Superior being larger than Lake Michigan, I can only imagine how high those seas can get during a November storm!!
On this particular November afternoon the waves look pretty harmless. As the whitecaps gently roll into shore, I consider again the words Gordon Lightfoot sang:
“The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy…”
To the west, I notice clouds beginning to cover the sun now slung low in the sky. A cool breeze ruffles my cap. I shiver. Storms have a habit of seemingly springing up out of nowhere on the Great Lakes, and November is known to be one of the worst months. I think about Captain McSorley and his crew. As the ship started going down, did they even have a clue?
Twenty-nine men were lost on that fateful night forty-eight years ago. Their memory lives on in the words of a song. I look up at the lighthouse that marks the entrance to Whitefish Bay. It has been theorized that the Edmund Fitzgerald was tracking a course towards the bay to ride out the storm in safer waters. Had the light and radio beacon here been working that night, would the crew still be alive today? According to the official Coast Guard report, the outages of the equipment at Whitefish Point did not contribute to their loss. Yet, one has to wonder.
There is truth to the song’s lyrics that Lake Superior doesn’t give up its dead. The bodies of the Fitzgerald’s crew were never recovered. Left to rest in their dark watery grave, the men remain with the wreck to this day. To protect the site from looters and to ensure the graves are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, the Canadian government amended the Ontario Heritage Act in April 2005. Essentially they made it illegal to dive the wreck without a site specific license issued by the Province. Violators can be punished by a fine of up to one million dollars!
I wander off the beach and head towards the museum. Having done my homework, I already know there is no chance of getting inside: the museum is open May 1 through October 31, and we’re already in November. Still, I peer through the glass doors. I am hoping to catch a glimpse of the ship’s bell, which was recovered during a dive operation in 1995. Instead, all I see is darkness - much like the darkness that envelops the ship today.
If you go: The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is open everyday 10 am to 6 pm May 1 through October 31. Admission fees are required to enter the museum and its buildings. The price of admission includes a self-guided tour of the Shipwreck Museum Building & Exhibits, a guided tour of the 1861 Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters & Exhibits, and a guided tour of the 1923 Surfboat House & Exhibits. Prices subject to change - see https://www.shipwreckmuseum.com for more details.
Access to the Lake Superior shoreline at Whitefish Point is allowed year round and is free.