She sank beneath the churning waves of Lake Superior nearly 50 years ago, taking all 29 members of the crew to the bottom with her. Today, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald may be the most most famous of all the Great Lakes ghost ships.
In this episode of Riverwest Radio’s Haunted Heartland series, host Anna Lardinois (author of Milwaukee Ghosts and Legends and Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes boat tour guide) recalls the tragic sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975. But Lake Superior never gives up her dead, and it seems the Great Lakes freighter can still be seen making its rounds despite the fact that the wreck rests 530 feet below the surface.
Listen to the episode below or click here to listen on Soundcloud.
Diorama of the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc
Chilling facts about the Edmund Fitzgerald
As far as Great Lakes maritime disasters go, the sinking of the “Mighty Fitz,” also called the “Titanic of the Great Lakes” by some, was tragic, but far from the worst. Still, it has has a strong foothold in modern culture and we are endlessly fascinated by it. That might be, in part, because of the haunting song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” penned by Gordon Lightfoot. But most of it probably has to do with some of the chilling facts surrounding the sinking and the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck as it sits today at the bottom of Lake Superior.
Ghost of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Not long after the massive freighter plunged to its doom, people began reporting sightings of it’s spectral visage off the coast of Whitefish Point, where the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum stands today. Like another famous Great Lakes shipwreck, the Christmas Tree Ship, it seems as though sinking to the bottom of the lake won’t keep the Edmund Fitzgerald from finishing her job.
Bodies in the Edmund Fitzgerald
The Edmund Fitzgerald sank so quickly that no one had time to escape. All hands went down with the ship. Lake Superior is exceptionally frigid, which prevents decomposition and the buildup of gases that usually cause a body to rise to the surface. That’s why they say Lake Superior never gives up her dead. No bodies have ever been recovered from the wreck. During a 1994 expedition, however, divers did discover the remains of one crewmember lying face down in the muck outside the wreck near the pilot house, fully dressed and still wearing an orange lifejacket.
Families of the crew whose bodies remain aboard the ship lobbied to protect the sanctity of the wreck as a burial place. In 2006 it became illegal to dive to the wreck, much less photograph any human remains.
What caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to sink?
The Edmund Fitzgerald sank so fast that the crew never even had a chance to send a distress signal or escape the ship, and no one knows why. The area where she sank, 17 miles off the coast of Whitefish Point, is a treacherous spot that’s claimed some 240 ships over the years. The prevailing theory is that, while the November storm was whipping the waters of Lake Superior into a violent frenzy, the Fitz was struck by three consecutive rogue waves that ripped it in half and plunged it into the icy depths. This phenomenon is known as the “three sisters” and was reported by other nearby ships to be occurring that night.
The last transmission ever received from the Fitz was, “We’re holding our own, going along like an old shoe.”
The Edmund Fitzgerald was the longest freighter on the Great Lakes at 729 feet, weighting more than 13,000 tons. It was commissioned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee and named after the company’s president. The christening and launch ceremony was held on June 7, 1958, and it was a day that no one present would forget. First, Fitzgerald’s wife Elizabeth struggled to break the champagne bottle on the ship’s bow. It took three attempts, which is enough to rattle any superstitious sailor. Then there were issues removing the keel blocks that delayed the launch. Finally, when the massive ship slid out of dry dock into the water, it crashed into the pier on the other side and splashed onlookers. Some witnesses said they thought the ship was “trying to climb right out of the water.”
The sight was so harrowing that one man was said to have died on the spot of a heart attack.
Edmund Fitzgerald ghost by artist Trevor Henderson