Gordon and Edmund

There are times when learning a bit of history makes some ordinary or cliched thing you’ve known since forever take on new life. Spend any time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and sooner or later you’re bound to hear Gordon Lightfoot crooning The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The song is the official background music in stores, restaurants, museums and bathrooms all over the UP. That song has been a part of my background noise since it’s debut in 1976. At first it was poignant, but after 43 years of replay it became just another tune in rotation on the oldies channel. If you paid attention at all to the song you know things went from bad to worse for the Edmund Fitzgerald. The “Fitz” as it’s known up here went down near Whitefish Point. The Point, its light house and Whitefish Bay are less than an hour from Sault Ste. Marie. The Point is also the site of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The Shipwreck Museum is listed as one of the top things to do in the area, so we piled into the car and headed up to Whitefish point.

On the drive up to Whitefish Point are trees stunted by harsh winters, snowmobile dealers, signs that say “seasonal roads” meaning they exist only in summer, and other indicators of a life that requires a lot of self-reliance. We passed the community of Paradise; they were busy with the annual Blueberry Festival, with art booths and blueberry-flavored everything. On a pleasant sunny day in August it was hard to imagine what Paradise would be like in November—or December through May, for that matter. Locals told us the winters are long, cold and relentless. Most of the tourist businesses call it a day in October and stay closed until snowmobile season starts, and then close again until the weather moderates in April. November is prime time for legendary Lake Superior squalls. When you and I think of a “lake,” we envision a benign body of water where people hold picnics, use paddle boards or maybe where Bill Murray overcomes his fear of water on Lake Winnipesaukee while strapped to a sailboat mast (if you’re a “What About Bob” fan). The chain of Great Lakes are actually fresh water inland seas, each with their own peculiar and dangerous weather systems. The beds of the Great Lakes are littered with hundreds of shipwrecks from the time of the first Great Lakes mariners to this century.

The lighthouse and keeper’s quarters

We pulled into the museum parking lot at Whitefish Point. There is the Shipwreck Museum building, offices for the US Coast Guard, some outbuildings, and the lighthouse which is connected by a bridge to the light keepers house. The lighthouse is made of cast iron and is still In service, managed by the US Coast Guard. For the price of admission you get access to the museum and all the buildings. You are also allowed to climb up to the top of the lighthouse. I admit I had my doubts about the museum as rave online reviews aren’t always trustworthy. In reality the museum was impressive in its dedication to historic portrayal and touchingly respectful to the thousands of people who lost their lives sailing or rescuing sailors. There were displays of the more prominent shipwrecks along with artifacts divers retrieved from the sunken hulls. The deep cold water of Lake Superior preserves the wrecks very well. 

Ship’s bell from the Fitz.

The main attraction is the artifacts from the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in an unexpected November gale November 10, 1975. The museum has a special display about the ship, its crew, events leading up to the ship’s foundering and yes, Gordon Lightfoot can be heard singing his mariner’s rime about the Fitz. Divers retrieved a few artifacts from the ship, including the ship’s bell which is installed in the museum. A replica bell was made inscribed with the names of the captain and crew that went down with the ship. That bell was taken back to the wreck and installed in place of the original. Divers are discouraged from going to the Fitz site out of respect for the families of the crew. It is a burial site. In reality all the shipwrecks are burial sites, some with reminders of the people who went down in the water. Divers found the bones of sailors scattered on the main deck of one wreck. We humans live in the moment and sooner or later time and passing generations remove those lost from memory. 

Life-saving station in Painesville Ohio. You can see the surf boats in the boat house.

An interesting building at the Shipwreck Museum is the Coast Guard Surf Boat House. Rescue Stations like it once dotted the coastlines of the Great Lakes. It was the men of the Coast Guard who leapt into the surf boats when a ship was going down to rescue whomever they could. The surf boats were a marvel of construction. Powerful and self-bailing thanks to scupper rails, they were designed to handle rough seas in desperate conditions. Civilians also jumped into the water to rescue sailors, so great was the effort to save souls from drowning. Cemeteries in the area are dotted with the graves of sailors who died—many of them unmarked, as few carried any identification.

Ben Stands next to the White Shoal Lens. It’s 9 feet wide and weighs 3,500 pounds.

Climbing the lighthouse was the last item on our museum to-do list. We were assigned a group and at the appointed hour we and 12 of our new best friends clanged up the narrow spiral iron stairs inside the tower to the top, 80 feet above the ground. The original lighthouse works are there to see, but a second shorter set of stairs went up a bit further. That is where the Coast Guard houses the current lighthouse equipment. The tower is still in service after all these years. We grunted up the narrow stairs feeling smug that we senior citizens weren’t the most out of breath in the group. We emerged on the platform to our reward, a 360 view of the water and land. Whitefish Bay was immortalized in Lightfoot’s song:

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 ‘er

Whitefish Bay from the Light house platform.

Whitefish Bay is beautiful. Water shaded from indigo blue to pale green sparkles for miles. We saw freighters and all manner of vessels far out in the lake, small dots that belied their size. Standing there in the sunshine on the narrow walkway it was hard to imagine what it would be like to climb that tower in the dark to check on the big fresnel lens. The lighthouse still operates because equipment and sensors may fail any time. Every ship navigator must still know how to use a sextant and trust that the light will warn them away from the shoals. Approximately 6,000 shipwrecks are documented in the Great Lakes with 30,000 lives lost. Other researchers estimate the toll to be much higher, as ships surely sank long before record keeping became common. On the approach to the beach there is a memorial to the crew of the Fitz. Just beyond the memorial, families enjoyed the beautiful day on the sand.

View of the grounds from the Light house platform

As we left the museum, Ben and I became reflective. I asked him what he thought of the museum. “It was more solemn than I thought it would be,” he said. “I had no idea there were so many shipwrecks.” I agreed. I had heard that people went diving for shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and I knew the Gordon Lightfoot song alright, but there was something about reading the stories about each ship that made me more appreciative of the true cost for transporting goods from one place to another. It was a dangerous business in the 1600s and it’s a dangerous business today. We think of shipwrecks as ancient events, but they still happen. 

Fitz lifeboat, retrieved from the wreck.

Below is a link to the lyrics of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The lyrics are based on the recorded communications from the captain of the Fitz as the big freighter started to founder. As I mentioned earlier, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this song over the years. The tune is catchy enough that just reading the lyrics will give you a major ear worm and I apologize in advance for that. Still, it’s a song that truly captures the feeling of impending disaster and subsequent loss for the crew of the Fitz and for all the generations of sailors who lost their lives navigating the Great Lakes. Several of the crew members were from Ohio, which surprised me, because I don’t usually think “Ohio” and “mariner” in the same sentence. There is an attitude that somehow the Great Lakes are not “real water” as in like the Earth’s oceans. Being a mariner is not qualified by an amount of salt—it is defined by wind, water, weather and hardship.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald lyrics

Edmund Fitzgerald Crew

Captain Ernest M. McSorley

Michael E. Armagost

Fred J. Beetcher

Thomas D. Bentsen

Edward F. Bindon

Thomas D. Borgeson

Oliver J. Champeau

Nolan S. Church

Ransom E. Cundy

Thomas E. Edwards

Russell G. Haskell

George J. Holl

Bruce L. Hudson

Allen G. Kalmon

Gorden Maclellan

Joseph Mazes

John H. McCarthy

Eugene O’Brien

Karl A. Peckol

John J. Poviach

James A. Pratt

Robert C. Rafferty

Paul M. Rippa

John D. Simmons

William J. Spengler

Mark A. Thomas

Ralph G. Walton

David E. Weiss

Blaine H. Wilhelm

Link to the crew names with job titles and hometown listing

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