Forty Years Ago . . .

last week, November 10, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a storm on Lake Superior.

I grew up in the Great Plains, so big boat meant a bass boat with a half-enclosed front  steering area. But one of the first songs I really remember hearing and learning the words to was Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. That song, and Ian Tyson’s ballad about Claude Dallas, have the coldest, most effective pedal steel guitar that I think I’ve ever heard. It really does raise the hair on the back of the neck, it sounds so cold and driving.

Why did the Edmund Fitzgerald catch people’s attention? It was the biggest boat* to wreck in the Great Lakes, and at one point had been the biggest boat on the Great Lakes. She disappeared without a trace and no one knew what had happened. Had water come in from over the side through a hatch-cover that had come loose in the storm? Had a big wave hit her broadside and rolled her over? Had she hogged and been lifted by waves, her hull no longer supported, and broke in two? No one knew until ten years ago or so.

She’s one of the few wrecks you cannot dive on without express permission, because she is a graveyard. Although anyone who wants to go diving (or swimming for that matter) in Lake Superior is a bit odd, unless he’s got the right equipment. Lake Superior is cold, always is. She “sings/ in the rooms of her icewater mansion” as Lightfoot phrased it.

As I type this, a Witch of November is churning the Great Lakes into deadly waves, icy wind howls down from the north, spray is freezing to ice on the wires and railings of any ship out in the storm. Indeed, the gales of November are well remembered.

*All floating things on the Great Lakes are boats, even when they are ships. It’s a Great Lakes thing.

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3 thoughts on “Forty Years Ago . . .

  1. I don’t recall the new story (I was ~8) but I do remember hearing the tune often in the 1970s in Wisconsin. And yes, it is a haunting thing.

    And it seems so odd (and oddly odd at that, now) to see a newscaster actually reading or at least skimming paper.

  2. A few years back, my folks were looking at some old slides they had taken of a ship going through the locks at Sault Ste Marie, and realized it was the Edmund Fitzgerald. Of course that had meant nothing at the time.

  3. What’s that rule of thumb? A ship is anything you can put a boat on, and a boat is anything you can put on a ship?

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