The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald & the Maritime Legacy of Gordon Lightfoot
Were it not for iconic Canadian folk singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, few people, boaters or otherwise, would understand the true impact of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
With the news of Lightfoot's unfortunate passing at the age of 84, the moment provides an opportunity for boaters to reflect on his contributions to maritime history.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was an American freighter that encountered a massive storm on Lake Superior on November 10th, 1975. She went down near Whitefish Bay in some of the worst conditions ever recorded, taking all 29 crew with her.
She was an enormous ship -- 730 feet long with a 75-foot beam and a 25-foot draught. She was designed to carry precious ore from mining developments around the Great Lakes and deliver them to her American owners in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her captain, Ernest M. McSorley, was Canadian by birth and had commanded nine other ships before taking the helm of the Fitzgerald in 1972.
The ship's loss was intimately captured by Newsweek in an article titled The Cruelest Month which has continually served as the most recognized retelling of the events.
She was the largest ship on the Great Lakes when she launched in 1958, and to this day remains the largest ship to have ever sunk in any of the five massive freshwater basins.
Her unfortunate legacy stands as the worst shipwreck in North American freshwater history.
But few would know about the true impact of the Edmund Fitzgerald were it not for the iconic Canadian songsmith.
Aside from marine historians or those with a connection to the Great Lakes, the loss of the Fitzgerald, although a staggering tragedy to those who followed the news, would have otherwise sunk into the depths of the collective consciousness over time. As with all major events, news writers eventually latch onto the next headline, leaving those affected behind to navigate the depths of their tragedy alone.
While it was a gradual development, the broader cultural impact of Lightfoot's music, and specifically the influence of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," has only gained strength with time. It has been 48 years since the ship went down, but today more than ever, her memory is recognized as an intrinsic piece of Canadian culture. Ask any sailor, or any Canadian citizen for that matter, if they've spent a night in a harbourfront watering hole, and they'll tell you that "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" played through the jukebox at some point. If it didn't, it was done acapella by patrons late into the evening.
The song was released in August 1976 as an unvarnished retelling, mixing Lightfoot's deeply autobiographical storytelling with elongated verses and acoustic atmospheres. The lyrics to 'The Wreck' are a poetic, albeit de-facto, recital of that cold November night.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors' cathedral
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early
One of the songs unique details is that the lyrics were written before the ship had even been found. In the five days between the ship's loss and eventual discovery on November 15th, 1975, Lightfoot somehow captured the essence of Canadian mourning before the silt had even settled.
“I simply write the songs about where I am and where I’m from,” he once proclaimed. “I take situations and write poems about them.”
Lightfoot was born in Orillia, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Simcoe, in 1938. His longstanding connection to the water was both literal and figurative. As his career flourished, thanks to cherished albums like Sit Down Young Stranger (1970), Sundown (1974), Summertime Dream (1976), and Endless Wire (1978), he never strayed far from the water, spending his later years living in Toronto, one of Canada's most influential maritime cities.
He was a boater, too. In an article with Yachting Magazine in 1979, Lightfoot expressed a profound love for his sailboat, aptly named Sundown, saying: "She's absolutely beautiful. Whattaya say to a big cruiser that'll still come through in the Macks?" referring to the annual Mackinac Yacht Race on Lake Huron.
Lightfoot would later commission a cruising sloop named Golden Goose by Superior Sailboats in Port McNicoll, Ontario on Georgian Bay. His affinity for boating and the Great Lakes is evident when you listen to the lyrics of songs like "Christian Island," a 1972 single devoted to one of Georgian Bay's most prized sanctuaries.
With the loss of one of Canada's most beloved musicians, today is once again a solemn reminder to remember the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the timeless music of Gordon Lightfoot.
Take a moment to enjoy "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The full lyrics are below:
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead When the skies of November turn gloomy With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most With a crew and good captain well seasoned Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms When they left fully loaded for Cleveland And later that night when the ship's bell rang Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound And a wave broke over the railing And every man knew, as the captain did too T'was the witch of November come stealin' The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait When the gales of November came slashin' When afternoon came it was freezin' rain In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin' "Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya" At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said "Fellas, it's been good to know ya" The captain wired in he had water comin' in And the good ship and crew was in peril And later that night when his lights went outta sight Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Does any one know where the love of God goes When the waves turn the minutes to hours? The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her They might have split up or they might have capsized They may have broke deep and took water And all that remains is the faces and the names Of the wives and the sons and the daughters
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings In the rooms of her ice-water mansion Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams The islands and bays are for sportsmen And farther below Lake Ontario Takes in what Lake Erie can send her And the iron boats go as the mariners all know With the gales of November remembered
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed In the maritime sailors' cathedral The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee Superior, they said, never gives up her dead When the gales of November come early