the Edmund Fitzgerald

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, November 8, 2017. In yesterday’s note, I lamented the 2016 passing of Leonard Cohen and took the opportunity to tip my cap to other notable Canadian ex-pats in music, movies, politics, and the arts.

A surprising number of readers wrote to complain that I hadn’t mentioned Neil Young, or jazz pianist Oscar Peterson or Charles Krauthammer (New York-born but Montreal-raised), or The Band, or any number of other shining stars from our neighbor to the north. It wasn’t meant to be a complete list, which I thought was evident, but this is the same problem one runs into in thanking clusters of people at a party or an award ceremony — you invariably omit deserving people.

Today’s date puts me in mind of another transnational artist, Gordon Lightfoot, who wrote a haunting song about a tragedy affecting both Canada and the United States, one which began unfolding on this date 42 years ago today.

Unless you live in the Upper Midwest, the storms that can rake the Great Lakes region in autumn and winter come as a shock, rivaling hurricanes in their fury. On this date in 1975, one of those weather systems came howling out of the Oklahoma plains heading northeast. That was Saturday, November 8. As the storm picked up speed, the National Weather Service began tracking it, and at 7 p.m. Sunday issued a gale warning for Lake Superior.

By that time, a Great Lakes freighter named the Edmund Fitzgerald, with Capt. Ernest McSorley at the helm, was already four-and-a-half hours out of its Wisconsin port with a crew of 29 and a cargo of 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets. At 1 a.m. on November 10, the Fitzgerald reported her position and the weather conditions on Lake Superior. The big ship was 20 miles south of Isle Royale, steaming through 10-foot waves and experiencing winds of more than 50 knots.

Reacting to a weather service prediction that the storm would pass south of Lake Superior, Captain McSorley had opted for a route that hugged the Canadian coast. But the forecast was wrong.

That night, he turned the big freighter to the south, heading across Superior toward Whitefish Bay. From there, the planned route would take them through the straits of Sault St. Marie, and down the length of Lake Huron to a port near Detroit called Zug Island. At dawn, snow was blowing and visibility was poor. At 7 a.m. on November 10, 1975, the ship issued another dispatch: winds at 35 knots; waves of 10 feet. It was the last weather report the giant freighter would ever send out.

“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.”

Those lines, you may remember, are from Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It was an unlikely hit, but Lightfoot’s haunting melody and narrative tale of the doomed ship and crew were hard to get out of your head. They still are: As I did when I wrote about the tragedy a couple of years ago, I’m listening to the song as I write this morning missive.

Technology has changed a great deal in the last four decades. Today, sitting at your laptop, or walking down the street with a hand-held device, you can follow the route the Edmund Fitzgerald took on its last voyage, courtesy of a Detroit News interactive map. You can listen to the radio transmissions between the U.S. Coast Guard and the SS Arthur M. Anderson, a sister freighter that tried to guide the Fitzgerald to safety in Whitefish Bay after the Fitz slipped from sight. And, of course, you can play Gordon Lightfoot’s song any time you want.

At first the families of the lost seamen didn’t care for this tune. Who was this Canadian troubadour to profit on their pain, they wondered. The passage of time gradually won most of them over, however, and for good reason. The song is a tribute to the men who lost their lives.

It’s more than that, too, as we were reminded in October of 2015 when another freighter, the El Faro, went down “with all hands,” in the old seaman’s phrase, in a hurricane off the coast of Puerto Rico.

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald wasn’t the worst maritime tragedy in the history of the Great Lakes. Another early November storm in 1913 took a dozen ships and more than 250 sailors’ lives. The bodies of the Fitz’s crew were never recovered, but the ship’s bell was. And when it is tolled 29 times on Friday, as it is every year, it will be for those men — and for the 25,000 others who have lost their lives on those waters down through the centuries.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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