What Caused the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Theories continue to abound surrounding the cause of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A recent graphic presentation provides the most likely causes of her demise.

Lake Superior, MI — December 18, 2019
“They might have split up or they might have capsized; they may have broke deep and took water.”

The lyrics of the popular Gordon Lightfoot ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” offers a few of the possible causes for the sinking of the great ship. But, even after the location of the ship’s remains were discovered on November 14, 1975, and multiple submersible dives were conducted on the site over the next two decades, the mystery of the ship’s death remains unsolved.

What is known, the ship sits in two pieces on the floor of Lake Superior approximately 15 miles west from the Ontario town of Dead Man’s Cove. The site is littered with her cargo of taconite pellets and debris from parts of the ship. The two large sections of the hull give no firm indication of how the vessel came apart. She lays in Canadian waters at a depth of 530 feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank on the evening of November 10, 1975, next year will be the 45th anniversary of the tragedy. “And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”

“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.”

The Edmund Fitzgerald was christened on June 7, 1958, at the time the largest of any vessel on the Great Lakes. With a length of 729 feet, she was barely able to pass through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. She remains the largest ship to have sunk in the region.

The Edmund Fitzgerald in the St. Marys River near Nine Mile Point, circa 1975. / Photo Courtesy of Robert Campbell

How does a ship like that come apart and fall to the bottom of the lake? A recently published graphic on reddit by MyketheTryke shows a number of ways that ships navigating the Great Lakes have been known to flounder.

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Most sources estimate there have been over 6,000 shipwrecks on the waters of the five big lakes, with a total loss of life exceeding 30,000 souls. Most people can only name one of those vessels, the USS Edmund Fitzgerald. Certainly, Lightfoot’s song is what carved that name into the collective consciousness of the continent.

Whatever the reason the huge ship and her crew were lost, the memory of the event will continue to live on. Maybe someday we will learn the exact cause. Or maybe the lake will never reveal her secrets.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the maritime sailors’ cathedral
The church bell chimed till 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.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc