Lost at Sea
Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and the third largest by volume. It serves as an important link in the Great Lakes Waterway, providing a route for the transportation of iron ore and other mined and manufactured materials from Duluth, Minnesota to Detroit Michigan; Toledo, Ohio; and other Great Lakes ports in both the U.S. and Canada.
Small in comparison to the open waters of the Pacific or Atlantic, Lake Superior is as dangerous a water to navigate and just as unpredictable. The water level fluctuates from month to month and massive winter storms decrease visibility and can bring hurricane force winds causing massive waves.
The first lake freighter built to the maximum St. Lawrence Seaway size (730 feet long, 75 feet wide and 25 feet of draft) the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was name after Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin chairman of the board, Edmund Fitzgerald. Northwestern Mutual invested in the iron and minerals industries on a large-scale basis, including the construction of the Fitzgerald.
By freightliner standards the interior of the Fitzgerald was considered luxurious; deep piled carpeting, tiled bathrooms, drapes over portholes, and air conditioning which extended into the crew quarters. Up until a few weeks before Fitzgerald sank, passengers had often traveled on board as company guests and had two guest state rooms. The pilot house featured state-of-the-art nautical equipment and a map room.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald left port in Superior, Wisconsin on the afternoon of November 9, 1975 with a full load of taconite iron ore headed to a steel mill in Detroit, Michigan. The ship never made it to port. Caught in a massive winter storm, the ship encountered waves as high as 35 feet and wind gusts up to 86 miles per hour. To this day, no one is certain why the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank and while there are three separate theories (Waves and Weather Theory, Rogue Wave Theory, and Cargo-hold Flooding Theory) the common denominator is the extreme weather and sea conditions caused by the winter storm.
Legend has it that Lake Superior “seldom gives up her dead”. All 29 crew members lost their lives that day. Normally bacteria feeding on a decaying body will generate gas inside the body, causing it to float to the surface. The water in Lake Superior is cold enough year round to inhibit bacterial growth and bodies tend to sink and never resurface. A body had been discovered in 1994 while a film crew was on expedition to the Fitzgerald. Not one crew member’s body has been recovered.