I will never forget forty five years ago when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. I live in Michigan and Great Lakes shipping industry is very important to the states that border the Great Lakes. My Grandfather and his sons, my Uncles, worked on the Great Lakes for many years. They had moved on to different careers by 1975 but we still felt that heart tuck when we saw a freighter just as my Grandmother did when her husband came back home after being at sea.
In 1975, I was a young mother of one son. My husband and I had bought our first home and I was redecorating the kitchen. The previous owner had put contact paper on the kitchen walls, NOT wallpaper, contact paper. It was a nightmare to remove. I was listening to the radio when they announced that the ship had sank. I was stunned could hardly believe it. “Those big freighters don’t sink. ” I thought. In all my life I had never heard of a freighter sinking. I began to cry not for anyone I knew but for the crew of 29 that I did not know.
For the next few weeks, I read everything I could find about the Edmund Fitzgerald. In the ensuing weeks, Newsweek wrote an article which inspired songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot to write his most famous song, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” .
“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”
The song was released a few weeks after the ship sank. For a very long time I could not help but cry when I heard the song and to this day, I still get goosebumps.
Tonight, on the forty fifth anniversary, we have a storm racing across Lake Michigan. The weathermen predicts for several hours tonight gale force winds on Lake Michigan with the possibility of 85 mile an hour gust and sustained winds of 50 miles an hour.
There are no ships in Lake Michigan tonight but several nearing Mackinaw. The storm will race across our state tonight rather quickly and when it hits land, the winds will diminish some before it races across Lake Huron in the wee hours of the morning.
There are three northbound ships headed into the path of the storm. Hopefully they will wait it out in the St Mary’s river for a time and let the storm pass but the movement of goods is important to their business and they have a schedule to keep.
So tonight I will pray for the 29 crew member who were lost forty five years ago and for the crew members on the ships who are headed into the path of the storm.
(Will do my regular Tombstone Tuesday next week.)