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During the last half of the 1980s I was a reporter on the island of Maui. One day while driving my 1966 Pontiac Bonneville to an assignment, which was only equipped with an AM radio, I was listening to an AM station when Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” came on. At the end of the song, the disc jockey said something to the effect that it was a true story that happened in the early part of the 20th century.
This was before cell phones, so I stopped at the first phone booth I spotted and called the DJ to inform him that the Fitzgerald tragedy had taken place only a dozen years ago, on Nov. 10, 1975. He never corrected his error on air – radio is so ephemeral – but at least I knew he would never make that mistake again.
Now, 40 years after the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with its crew of 29 men during a massive storm on Lake Superior, it remains the best known sinking after the Titanic, largely due to Lightfoot’s disco-era sea shanty tribute to the doomed bulk freighter.
“I believe that as well,” said Rochelle Pennington of Lomira, Wis., who is working on a book about Lake Superior. “The Fitzgerald song made more people aware of Lake Superior.”
Pennington’s previous books include The Historic Christmas Tree Ship and The Endurance, the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
But it is Where the Hammock Hangs, her book on Lake Superior, that occupies her now.
“People are astounded to learn that the other four Great Lakes would fit inside of Superior if it was emptied of its water and you’d have to add three more Lake Eries. You could take all the water out of Superior and cover two continents in one foot deep of water, all of North and South America,” she said.
Pennington was on a European trip when the idea of Lake Superior as a destination was presented to her.
“I was on a bus trip in Europe. One night everyone started talking about favorite places,” she said. “One woman in our group said Lake Superior. I was so shocked to being sitting in Europe and have someone say Lake Superior is her favorite place and I had never been there. When I came home from Europe, I knew I wanted to go to Lake Superior. I just fell in love with it. I could absolutely not believe how different the world was four hours from where I had lived my entire life.”
That was eight years ago. Since then she has absorbed the lake’s beauty, history and the stories that surround it. Her exploration of the lake has also led to a better understanding of what the 29 crewmen aboard the Fitzgerald experienced.
She has photographed the land the Fitzgerald passed on her last voyage and understands why the Fitz sought safety along massive cliffs of the northernmost corridor.
“When you examine the theories – Did it hit a shoal?” Pennington said. “I show examples of what Lake Superior looks like under the surface so that you are able to visualize the rocks and what is a submerged mountain in the middle of the lake. What do the shoals look like around Caribou Island? Some believe the Fitzgerald bellied out in that area. Also, what does it mean when a captain decides to hide beneath the highlands, to use those rocky cliffs as a stone shield? So I show images of the pictographs and the sleeping giant, the massive cliffs. These were the visuals the men on board the ship saw regularly. If you’ve never been there, the images are just stunning. When I start showing the images of Lake Superior, people cannot believe that these places even exist because Superior is so different from the four other lakes.”
The idea is to open people’s minds to the power and majesty of Lake Superior, and hopefully, clear up some mysteries.
“Even Gordon Lightfoot’s words, when he sings Lake Superior “doesn’t give up her dead.’ Those words can be a mystery without an explanation,” Pennington said. “The lake is deadly cold and the rocky bottom lacks vegetation. Bacteria can’t live. A body inflate and float.”
Pennington also brings up the “curses” the Fitzgerald was saddled with.
“I’m fascinated by the curses. There were two curses on the ship,” she said. “When the ship was christened, Edmund Fitzgerald was in attendance. He was the president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, another Wisconsin connection. He was more than a man behind a desk. He came from a long line of lake shipping captains. Edmund Fitzgerald’s father owned a dry dock in Milwaukee. He went on to found the Wisconsin Maritime Historical Society. Edmund and his wife, Elizabeth, were at the christening in Michigan. Elizabeth was given the honor of christening the ship. The champagne bottle didn’t break until the third swing. That’s seen to be an omen.
“The second omen, and this is true, the ship had hit the waters during the launch. The water was so icy cold, when it splashed up, the water hit one man in the audience in the chest and he died of a heart attack. They say a death at the launch means the coming death of the ship,” Pennington said.
She is also fascinated by the enduring mystery of why the Fitzgerald sank.
“We’re still asking, still wondering what happened in those final moments. There are still so many theories and no real conclusion,” she said. “There are so many who believe there may be have been a structural problem with the Fitzgerald. Former crewmembers say it had too much flex, too much bend. Some said when it hit a wave, it would bend like a diving board. Some believe it was damaged and needed repairs. It hit the wall at the Soo Locks the year before. Was it’s strength compromised? Did rogue waves give it a shove And then there is the mystery of the wreckage sitting some 500-feet below the surface in two sections.
“It’s missing almost 200 feet,” Pennington said. “One section is 250-some feet and the other is 270-some and the ship was 728-feet long. Some say part of the ship is missing. Others say the metal is just scrunched back.”
While those mysteries may never be solved, Pennington believes the story of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald will endure, and not just because of Lightfoot’s song.
“I do believe this story will last,” she said. “People are fascinated by shipwrecks and storms. All those freighters seem indestructible. Then we have to relearn that the water is the ultimate power.”