Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald lives on February 11, 2014

DECADES AGO WHILE TOURING an open iron ore pit on Minnesota’s Iron Range with my parents and perhaps a sibling or two, I met a sailor. Red. His nickname was attributed to his rust-hued hair and beard.

He was a hulk of a young man, crammed into a seat with me on a school bus that bumped down a rugged road into the bowels of the earth.

I honestly do not remember much about Red except that hair and his job laboring on a ship that sailed Lake Superior. We likely talked about the mammoth trucks in the pit. I told him I would be starting college soon and we exchanged addresses.

That fall of 1974, Red sent a few letters, tucked inside official Great Lakes Carriers’ Association envelopes. I can’t recall the content of that correspondence and I soon forgot about Red as I immersed myself in college life.

The Edmund Fitzgerald stretched more than two football fields long. This photo is among many shown in a presentation by diver Jim Christian.

The Edmund Fitzgerald stretched two football fields long. This photo is among many shown in a presentation by diver Jim Christian at the Rice County Historical Society.

Yet, I never really have forgotten him, because of The Edmund Fitzgerald, the iron ore carrier which sank in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, during a fierce storm. I’ve often wondered whether Red may have been on board that ship. Not likely. But the slight possibility exists.

This past Sunday, I thought about Red for the first time in decades when I attended a presentation on The Edmund Fitzgerald at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault. The event coincides with The Merlin Players’ Valentine’s Day opening of the play, Ten November, at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

Christina Schweitz, second from left, says is is "an honor" to perform as one of The Three Sisters in The Merlin Players' play, Ten November.

Christina Schweitz, second from left, says it is “an honor” to perform as one of The Three Sisters in The Merlin Players’ play, Ten November. She is flanked by the other “sisters,” Lisa Quimby, left, and Gail Kaderlik.

Inspired by folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the theatrical production is filled with humor and compassion and heartwarming tales, according to performer Lisa Quimby. She was among five musicians—three of them female singers—presenting several songs at Sunday’s museum event. The women represent “The Three Sisters,” a trio of waves, each wave larger than the previous and sometimes cited as a contributing factor to the ship’s sinking.

We were shown a half-hour version of this one-hour documentary for sale at the historical society.

We were shown a shortened version of this PBS documentary available for purchase at the historical society.

Diver Jim Christian gestures as he provides information on the iron ore carrier and theories on why it sank.

Diver Jim Christian gestures as he provides information on the iron ore carrier and theories on what caused The Fitz to sink.

Based on information I gleaned Sunday after watching The Edmund Fitzgerald Investigations—a half-hour PBS documentary by Ric Mixter—and a presentation by Minnesotan Jim Christian, who has been diving for 28 years and has explored The Fitz wreckage, I wonder if anyone will ever truly know the precise cause of this tragedy.

Newspaper clippings about The Fitz were passed among audience members while Jim Christian spoke.

Newspaper clippings about The Fitz were passed among audience members while Jim Christian spoke. The ship was built in 1958.

Twenty-nine men aboard The Edmund Fitzgerald lost their lives in the stormy waters of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. That is a fact.

Some 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, like these, filled the cargo holds of The Edmund Fitzgerald as it journeyed across Lake Superior on November 9 and 10, 1975.

Some 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, like these, filled the cargo holds of The Edmund Fitzgerald as it journeyed across Lake Superior on November 9 and 10, 1975.

Winds on that fateful day were described as “hurricane” force with a gale warning issued during the time the 729-foot long by 75-foot wide carrier was en route from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan, with 26,000 tons of taconite pellets. The ship, loaded with 15 percent more than its originally designed maximum carrying capacity, according to Christian, rode low in the water while storm waves rose to 70 feet. Can you imagine?

Around 7:15 p.m. on November 10, The Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared. The wreckage was later discovered 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, and has been the focus of many dives and investigations since.

The legend lives on, as does that connection many of us have to The Edmund Fitzgerald, whether through song or theatre or diving or letters written decades ago by a sailor named Red.

Another photo from Jim Christian's presentation shows the 729-foot long Edmund Fitzgerald.

Another photo from Jim Christian’s presentation shows the 729-foot long Edmund Fitzgerald.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE THEORIES offered during Sunday’s presentation as contributing to/cause of The Fitz sinking in Lake Superior in the gales of November 1975. Seas then were termed by a skipper as “the worst (he’d experienced) in 44 years on the lake.”

  • Leaking hatch covers caused by failure to tighten each of the 68 clasps on each of the 21 hatch covers.
  • Mesh screens, rather than watertight walls, separated the three cargo holds.
  • An inability to turn the carrier with three “seas” coming at the ship from three directions.
  • “Beat by the lake” during the fierce storm.
  • The Three Sisters theory of wave building upon wave, overtaking the carrier and causing the cargo to shift forward.
  • Flaws in structural design with weakness in the cargo capacity and too much flex in a ship that was ridden “too hard.”
  • Structural failure of the ship, built in 1958 and the largest carrier on Lake Superior for nearly two decades.
  • Pushing the ship too fast, causing The Fitz and its companion traveler, The Arthur M. Anderson (which made it through the storm), to feel the full fury of the storm.
  • Previous damage to the carrier during grounding and collisions with another ship and with lock walls. The keel had been repaired twice and was termed as “loose again” when The Fitz set sail on November 9.
  • Loaded with too much taconite, causing the ship to ride low in Lake Superior.
  • Negligence.

You can choose to believe what you wish. I’d suggest you do your own research.

This fact I know, though: The legend lives on…

The Paradise Center for the Arts marquee advertises the opening of Ten November.

The Paradise Center for the Arts marquee advertises the opening of Ten November.

FYI: To learn more about The Edmund Fitzgerald, click here to read information on the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website.

Performances of Ten November by The Merlin Players are set for 7:30 p.m. February 14, 15, 20, 21 and 22 and for 2 p.m. February 16 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault. Click here for more information about this play directed by Eric Parrish, a seasoned director and a professor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

21 Responses to “The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald lives on”

  1. What an incredible incident and the song is priceless and haunting,

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    What a neat performance to see. I have always loved that song your association with Red is a nice little addition to the story. Who knows where Red is today??? 🙂

    • Yes, I can’t wait to see the performance of Ten November this weekend. This event at the historical society was perfect for providing more background and insight into the sinking of the carrier.

      The ship is named after Edmund Fitzgerald, who was president and chairman of the board at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance of Milwaukee. The Fitz was a business enterprise of the company.

      Red gives me that personal connection, albeit a bit stretched, to this legend.

  3. treadlemusic Says:

    Fascinating! Have always loved that haunting song, with its vivid pictures of the ship in such a dangerous situation. It, truly, is the thing legends are made of!!!!

  4. Allan Says:

    A family friend of ours, worked for a taconite plant near Two Harbors/Silver Bay, and would help load the ore ships as they came into harbor. He knew all of the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He knew them by name, and said they were all great men! Whenever I see our Friend Clarence, I ask him a thousand questions about the bigger than life ore boat, E.F. He tells in detail about the night the Edmund Fitz left port for the last time. He said his Farewells to the crew, and that was the last time he saw the Edmund Fitzgerald. Interesting and sad at the same time. I remember the night of November 10th too well. Hearing about the sinking was so eerie, as Lake Superior has “taken” so many ships over the centuries. God Bless the able crew in their new home with God, and Bless the families that still have an ache for their loved ones the year around, but November 10th must be a hard date to get through.

  5. Jackie Says:

    Rick and I love Lake Superior and often think about all the ships that have gone down over the years….there are many, the Edmund Fitzgerald being a famous one. The Lake is is huge and we always think of it as the ocean. Last fall we stopped to watch Surfers, yes surfers on Lake Superior. I love that song as well….so eerie. Hope you enjoy your performance this weekend.

  6. How interesting, as always! Wow – what a thought to know that he COULD have been on the ship – and even if not, I’m sure his life was changed, at least philosophically. Fun to imagine you that age exchanging addresses with a boy! 🙂 In particular, thank you for your informative post and featuring your city and Eric’s play – he even sent me an e-mail asking if this was written by my friend! Yes! She’s awesome that way.

  7. hotlyspiced Says:

    What a tragic story. I can’t believe the ‘water-tight doors’ were made of mesh! It must have been so frightening on that ship with those high seas and what a horrible end those men had xx

  8. Thread crazy Says:

    I’ve always wondered what happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald…what an interesting performance that must have been. Living on Lake Erie as a child, it was very common to see the large ore ships going and coming and I was always mesmerized by the way they seem to glide over the water; then frightened by their size when my Dad would drive us by the docks. I too love that song…a legend in itself.

    • I am looking forward to seeing Ten November this weekend.

      How interesting that must have been to grow up along Lake Erie. I’ve seen Lake Superior perhaps a half dozen times in my life, and Lake Michigan twice. So impressive.

  9. ryanware Says:

    It’s hard to imagine the power of that lake. Almost every time I’ve visited the North Shore things have been serene. I’ve always wanted to be there in a gale to photograph.


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