The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, sings Gordon Lightfoot in one of the most famous songs of his career, of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. If you haven’t heard it before, you should listen to it before reading this post. In a recent Reddit AMA, Lightfoot explained that he was compelled to write the song after it seemed to go unnoticed when it happened in November of 1975. The song rose to the top of the charts in 1976, and The Wreck is one of his most famous songs. Lightfoot gave new longevity to the memory of the men who went down on the Edmund Fitzgerald. The song is a fascinating display of memory and history.
On 23 April, 1957, the President of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company was retiring and gave an address commemorating the 100th anniversary of the company. The President spoke of the company’s achievements over the last century, including investments in various industries, such as shipping ore across the Great Lakes. A few months later, the Northwestern board launched the largest ore carrier ever constructed on the Great Lakes and named it in honour of their retiring President, Edmund Fitzgerald. It could carry up to 26,000 tons of ore and sailed the Great Lakes for nearly twenty years.
The ship left Superior, Wisconsin, for Zug Island at Detroit (not Cleveland) on 9 November, 1975, with a full load of taconite ore. A storm hit the Lakes as it headed south. On the afternoon of 10 November, the Edmund Fitzgerald radioed a passing ship that they had taken damage, and together they tried to sail to Whitefish Point. At 7:10pm Captain Ernest McSorley of the Edmund reported that the crew was holding their own. Sometime between 7:15 and 7:25pm, the ship sank in the night. The ship vanished (the official report noting it could have been as little as 10 seconds) and despite a search in treacherous conditions, no survivors from its 29 crew were found. Though we know the ship had taken damage, not much else is known about what happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald that caused it to sink so quickly on the waters of Lake Superior.
Local newspapers and television news did carry news of the wreck and it gained national attention. Two weeks later, Newsweek published an article about the sinking, titled “The Cruelest Month.” It began with the line, “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’” It noted that the gales of November had caused many shipwrecks on the lake over the years. After the tragedy, the article explained, a minister in downtown Detroit offered prayers for the seamen and tolled the church bell 29 times for each life lost. Much of these details appear in Lightfoot’s song, suggesting that the Newsweek article was one of the ones he arrayed on the table while writing the song.
Had Lightfoot not written the song, it is likely the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald would have just been one other shipwreck in a history of shipwrecks. Instead, it is one of the most well-known maritime disasters of the Great Lakes. A generation heard the song when it was released in 1976, and a generation since has probably heard their parents play the song or since discovered Lightfoot’s most successful song. So, as Lightfoot reminds us, the legend does live on.
In 1994, divers discovered a body near the wreck. Until then, no diving expeditions had found a sign of corpses near the ship. The families of the sailors lost on the ship moved to have a Michigan law passed that forbid photographing a body without the written consent of the next of kin. The wreck, however, was in Canadian waters, but the Ontario government did limit access to the site. In 2006, the Ontario Heritage Act declared the Edmund Fitzgerald a “marine archeological site” and access to it was heavily restricted.
John R. Beck recently wrote about the memory of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the International Journal of Maritime History. He notes that the commercialization of the wreck has changed dramatically since 1975. At first, the families of the crew were not pleased with the national spotlight, either in the weeks following from news stories or after Lightfoot’s song became so popular. Soon there were books, blueprints, maps, mugs, key chains, plays, other songs, eventually DVDs – all sorts of commercialized objects sold by the powerful memory of the Edmund Fitzgerald. At first they were appalled by the effort to make money off the tragedy. Today, Beck writes, some of the families find the merchandise a fitting memorial for their lost loved ones. Kitsch objects have propagated the memory of the tragedy in the Great Lakes region.
We’ve discussed many times the balance between history and memory here on Clio’s Current. History is what we know happened – memory is what we remember happening. The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a compelling story and most people probably would say they know what happened because they’ve listened to Lightfoot’s song. They know it carried “26,000 tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.” They know that poor weather on a November afternoon sank the ship before it could make it to Whitefish Bay, and the Church bell rang 29 times for the lost lives. Beck’s article reveals that while most of these facts were correct, there are slight inaccuracies in Lightfoot’s lyrics. The ship was heading to Detroit, not Cleveland. We know now that “at seven PM a main hatchway caved in” is not why the ship sank, as it implies it was crew error. Though, to his credit Lightfoot now sings, “At seven PM, it grew dark, it was then he said.” Still, if you listened to Lightfoot singing before 2010, you would have heard a slightly different version of events.
For most audiences, they believe they have a clear idea of what happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald thanks to Lightfoot’s evocative and melodic lyrics. They think they know the history of the event, rather than a remembered version of it. There is an immediacy to the ballad that makes it seem as if it’s an accurate account and lends itself to a sort of “eyewitness” account of the sinking. Ultimately though, it is a memory that has been imposed on the actual events, even as it has effectively surpassed most other accounts as a source of “real knowledge.” Few have read the official report on the sinking, or even books written about it, which might offer more a more accurate review of the history or “what happened.” The song remains the most likely source of knowledge about the wreck.
Still, Lightfoot’s song is fairly accurate. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a great example of why memory surpasses history. History and memory often overlap in the facts they present, but the memory usually replaces the history in the public mind. Why? In the case of the Edmund Fitzgerald, it is because the memory is spread far more easily and broadly than the history. Millions have heard the song, far fewer have read the book. As obvious as it might sound, “popular memory” becomes memory because it is popular. It is easily digested by the public, either as catchy lyrics, or in other cases, simplified narratives of events. In a very real way, it’s much easier to remember the lyrics of the song, than the chapters of a book or report.