Tears for ‘The Fitz’ at the Shipwreck Museum

  • A picture of the Fitzgerald plying the waves of the Great Lakes.

When I think of the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in Michigan, on the treacherous southern shore of Lake Superior, I will remember Jack Champeau’s tears.

Jack’s big brother, Oliver “Buck” Champeau, was 41 and a third assistant engineer on the SS Edmund Fitzgerald when it sunk. When their father died, Buck was only 13, but quit school to help raise his four brothers and sisters. When Jack was heading to the war in Vietnam, Buck, who fought in Korea, told him not to worry. He promised that, if anything happened to Jack, Buck would make sure he got home.

It was the one thing Jack couldn’t do for Buck after the Fitzgerald was lost in 1975, more than 40 years ago this month. Recovering the bodies was too dangerous, so Buck remains entombed in the wreck with the ship’s 28 other crew members.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy

The Fitzgerald is forever remembered in Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which, to give credit where it’s due, drew heavily from James R. Gains account of the sinking in Newsweek, titled The Cruelest Month. That report began “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called ‘Gitche Gumee’ never gives up her dead.”

With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship, nicknamed “The Big Fitz,” was the longest on the Great Lakes when she launched in 1959, remains the largest to sink there and, valued at $24 million with her cargo of 26,116 long tons of taconite ore pellets, the greatest financial loss.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned

She was 729 feet, the longest to fit through the then-new Saint Lawrence Seaway until the SS Murray Bay launched at one foot longer. Six times she won seasonal haul records bringing iron ore from mines in Minnesota to iron works in Detroit, Toledo and other Great Lake ports.

She was also called the Queen of the Lakes, and was luxurious for an ore freighter, with tiled bathrooms, porthole drapes, leather swivel chairs and deep carpeting. She often carried passengers, who reported excellent cuisine, and the pilothouse had state-of-the-art equipment.

Her “DJ captain,” Peter Pulcer, would entertain crowds at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie and on the St. Clair and Detroit rivers between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, playing music over the ship’s intercom and telling people about the iconic ship. Pulcer wasn’t on board when she went down. Captain Ernest M. McSorley was in command.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The Big Fitz left Superior, Wisconsin, just after 2 p.m. on Nov. 9, headed for a steel mill on Zug Island near Detroit. A storm was predicted, but was supposed to stay south of Lake Superior. Instead it moved north bringing winds that reached 70 mph, with gusts up to 85 mph, and waves up to 35 feet high.

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’

McSorley kept in contact with the SS Arthur M. Anderson, traveling the same route.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind

By 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, McSorley radioed Anderson to report that the Fitzgerald was taking on water, had lost two vent covers and a fence railing, and had developed a list. Shortly after 4, he reported his radar was lost. He was heading toward Whitefish Bay, a safe harbor only 17 miles away, but the navigational beacon at Whitefish Point had been knocked out.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Saying, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.”
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”

The Anderson pulled closer, helping the Fitzgerald navigate. McSorley radioed, “We are holding our own.”

About 7 p.m., the Anderson lost sight of the Fitz’s running lights in a snow squall. When the squall passed, the Fitz was gone. She had sent no distress signal.

The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Fitz joined at least 240 ships that sank in the area since the Invincible was lost in 1816.

Does anyone 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 her

The reason she went down is still in dispute: Maybe she hit the shoals while trying to avoid the storm and took on water through the hull, maybe she had topside damage, or lost cargo hatches, and took on water from the waves washing over the hull, or maybe a rogue wave took her out. The Anderson reported two, and possibly, three rogue waves, sometimes called the “three sisters,” a Great Lakes phenomena of three waves in succession that are up to a third larger than the sustained waves.

They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

The next day the bell at the Mariners’ Church in Detroit rang 29 times, once for each life lost, including Buck.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald

The sinking led to changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices that included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspection of vessels.

Each year, the Shipwreck Museum holds a remembrance Nov. 10 for families of those lost. On July 4, 1995, divers recovered the Fitz’s bell, replacing it with a replica engraved with the names of crew. Jack was there, his tears for Buck running down his face.

Divers also put a beer can in the Fitzgerald’s pilothouse.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

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