The History and a Song: Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

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I was born in the early 1980s when the popularity of Canadian born folk-rock/folk-pop singer Gordon Lightfoot was still high. He had many hits in the US (and his native Canada) throughout the 60s and continued to gain recognition as an amazing performer and songwriter. Icons like Bob Dylan, who called Lightfoot ‘one of his favorite songwriters’, and country music legend Marty Robbins covered his songs early in his career. Over the years his songs have been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, Hank Williams Jr., Barbara Streisand, and many many more. It was his 1974 hit “Sundown” and his 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” which would skyrocket Lightfoot to the tops of the Billboard Top 40 with “Sundown” peaking in at #1 on June 29, 1974. It was his hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“, which peaked in at #2 (and #1 in Canada) on November 20, 1976, that drew the most attention from me.

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I’m sure that I heard the song on some adult contemporary rock station back in the 80s while hanging outside in my dad’s building. But it was not until I was in my teens that I truly came to understand that the lyrics of this chart-topping song that meant way more than their face value. I knew that it told a story. I just didn’t realize that it was a true story. When we first got the internet at my parent’s house, I happened upon the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald and realized that the song was inspired by the actual sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Gordon Lightfoot, much like the rest of North America, was devastated after learning of the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, and drew much of the inspiration for the lyrics from the November 1975 Newsweek article “The Cruelest Month”. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, was named after the chairman of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and civic leader Edmund Fitzgerald who was the head of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee which had started investing in the iron and minerals industries (including the actual construction of the Edmund Fitzgerald), was first launched on June 7th, 1958. At that time, the Great Lakes freighter was the largest ship on North America’s Great Lakes. The Edmund Fitzgerald carried taconite iron ore from the mines near Duluth, Minnesota to many ports along the Great Lakes. The freighter (who set records with the number of hauls done in a season) was known by spectators at the docks; because Captain Peter Pulcer was known for piping music day and night over the ship’s intercom while passing through the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers (located between Lakes Superior and Lake Huron) and would entertain the boat watchers with a bullhorn at the Soo Locks (also located between Lake Superior and Lake Huron) by his running commentary about the ship’s details.

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On the afternoon of November 9th, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald was carrying a full capacity cargo of ore pellets en route from Superior, Wisconsin (which is near Duluth) to a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan with Captain Ernest M. McSorley in command of the freighter. After being joined by a second freighter (the SS Arthur M. Anderson), by the next day, the two freighters were caught in a severe storm which recorded hurricane-force winds and waves that were up to 35 feet high. A little after 7:10 PM on November 10th, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay in the Canadian waters near the twin cities of Sault Sainte Marie (Michigan in the US and Ontario in Canada). Sadly the entire crew of 29 men perished that day. No bodies were recovered and no one knows exactly what caused the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The disaster is one of the best-known in the history of all shipping throughout the Great Lakes and the sinking led to changes in shipping regulations and practices throughout the Great Lakes area.

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Images

Cover Image – Edmund Fitzgerald, 1971 by Greenmars, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36483480

Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald album cover attributed to unknown, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3356499

Gordon Lightfoot performing in Toronto, 2008, playing his twelve-string guitar by Piedmontstyle at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3939185

SS Edmund Fitzgerald underway by Unknown – United States Army Corps of Engineers, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14758698

Map showing the location of the wreck, with the red pointer by Oaktree b – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30369506

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