Remembering the ‘Edmund Fitzgerald’

During the last half of the 1980s I was a reporter on the island of Maui. One day while driving my 1966 Pontiac Bonneville to an assignment, which was only equipped with an AM radio, I was listening to an AM station when Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” came on. At the end of the song, the disc jockey said something to the effect that it was a true story that happened in the early part of the 20th century.

This was before cell phones, so I stopped at the first phone booth I spotted and called the DJ to inform him that the Fitzgerald tragedy had taken place only a dozen years ago, on Nov. 10, 1975. He never corrected his error on air – radio is so ephemeral – but at least I knew he would never make that mistake again.

Now, 40 years after the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with its crew of 29 men during a massive storm on Lake Superior, it remains the best known sinking after the Titanic, largely due to Lightfoot’s disco-era sea shanty tribute to the doomed bulk freighter.

“I believe that as well,” said Rochelle Pennington of Lomira, Wis., who is working on a book about Lake Superior. “The Fitzgerald song made more people aware of Lake Superior.”

Pennington’s previous books include The Historic Christmas Tree Ship and The Endurance, the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Author Rochelle Pennington

Author Rochelle Pennington

But it is Where the Hammock Hangs, her book on Lake Superior, that occupies her now. She will be sharing some of her love for the greatest of the Great Lakes when she returns to the Door County Maritime Museum to kick off the 2015-16 Maritime Speaker Series at 7 pm on Thursday, Nov. 5.

“People are astounded to learn that the other four Great Lakes would fit inside of Superior if it was emptied of its water and you’d have to add three more Lake Eries. You could take all the water out of Superior and cover two continents in one foot deep of water, all of North and South America,” she said.

Pennington was on a European trip when the idea of Lake Superior as a destination was presented to her.

“I was on a bus trip in Europe. One night everyone started talking about favorite places,” she said. “One woman in our group said Lake Superior. I was so shocked to be sitting in Europe and have someone say Lake Superior is her favorite place and I had never been there. When I came home from Europe, I knew I wanted to go to Lake Superior. I just fell in love with it. I could absolutely not believe how different the world was four hours from where I had lived my entire life.”

That was eight years ago. Since then she has absorbed the lake’s beauty, history and the stories that surround it.

“I am going to be showing many, many images of Lake Superior,” she said of her talk. “It’s going to be part about the Fitzgerald and part a circle tour of Lake Superior. I do that intentionally in order to have the words be more than words.”

She intends to show photographs of the massive cliffs the Fitzgerald and its companion ship that fateful night, the Arthur M. Anderson, sought to sail against from protection from the awful November storm that descended once it left the Duluth-Superior harbor loaded with taconite pellets.

“When you examine the theories – Did it hit a shoal? I show examples of what Lake Superior looks like under the surface so that you are able to visualize the rocks and what is a submerged mountain in the middle of the lake. What do the shoals look like around Caribou Island? Some believe the Fitzgerald bellied out in that area. Also, what does it mean when a captain decides to hide beneath the highlands, to use those rocky cliffs as a stone shield? So I show images of the pictographs and the sleeping giant, the massive cliffs. These were the visuals the men on board the ship saw regularly. I try to take audience members to Superior in order to make the story fuller. If you’ve never been there, the images are just stunning. When I start showing the images of Lake Superior, people cannot believe that these places even exist because Superior is so different from the four other lakes.”

The idea is to open people’s minds to the power and majesty of Lake Superior, and hopefully, clear up some mysteries.

Edmund Fitzgerald Wreckage“Even Gordon Lightfoot’s words, when he sings Lake Superior ‘doesn’t give up her dead.’ Those words can be a mystery without an explanation,” Pennington said. “The lake is deadly cold and the rocky bottom lacks vegetation. Bacteria can’t live. A decaying body doesn’t get eaten, it doesn’t inflate and float.”

Pennington said she will also talk about the “curses” the Fitzgerald was saddled with.

“I’m fascinated by the curses. There were two curses on the ship,” she said. “When the ship was christened, Edmund Fitzgerald was in attendance. He was the president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, another Wisconsin connection. He was more than a man behind a desk. He came from a long line of lake shipping captains. Edmund Fitzgerald’s father owned a dry dock in Milwaukee. He went on to found the Wisconsin Maritime Historical Society. Edmund and his wife, Elizabeth, were at the christening in Michigan. Elizabeth was given the honor of christening the ship. The champagne bottle didn’t break until the third swing. That’s seen to be an omen.

“The second omen, and this is true, the ship had hit the waters during the launch. The water was so icy cold, when it splashed up, the water hit one man in the audience in the chest and he died of a heart attack. They say a death at the launch means the coming death of the ship,” Pennington said.

The Door County Maritime Museum is also commemorating the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald with an exhibit in the Reddin Bridge Room that includes paintings and photos of the freighter, artifacts from the Fitzgerald that remained in Sturgeon Bay after she wintered there, and details on the two Sturgeon Bay natives – Oliver “Buck” Champeau and Russell Haskell. There is also a video display of the submerged wreck and the radio transmissions between the U.S. Coast Guard and Capt. Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson. The exhibit will run through Nov. 10, then will be taken down for the museum’s annual Merry-Time Festival of Trees. The Fitzgerald exhibit then returns Dec. 10 and runs through April 17.

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