Sinking of Fitzgerald Recalls Lake Tragedies

  Reprinted from the Grand Marais Pilot & Pictured Rocks Review-December 1975

  Tragedy on the Great Lakes has special meaning for those who live along the shores of our inland seas. It has poignant significance for those who make their livelihood from the lakes. The recent tragic sinking of the carrier Steamer Edmund Fitzgerald, which plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior on the night of November 10, 1975, has been no exception.

    In the days following the tragedy, ships passing through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie were flying their flags at half-mast out of respect to the memory of the Fitzgerald and crew. During a special memorial service in Lake Erie, a wreath was dropped into the waters as a tribute to the men who lost their lives in one of Michigan’s most violent storms.

   This past Sunday, November 30, special memorial services honoring the men lost with the Fitzgerald were held at Sault Ste. Marie. Flags in both Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario were flown at half-mast.

   Plans to drop a memorial wreath into Lake Superior had to be cancelled due to high waves and strong winds. Services were held at the Soo Locks.

   Over the years the Grand Marais area has been the site of many tragedies connected with Lake Superior. Even within the last four years several people have lost their lives while fishing out of this community. On the night of October 30, 1971, Norvin LeFebvre and his son Paul lost their lives while fishing in Grand Marais Harbor. Norvin at the time was a member of the Burt Township Board of Education in Grand Marais. His son Paul was a student in the sophomore class. Both the current publisher and the current editor of The Pilot were teachers of Paul.

  On July 17, 1973, three fishermen drowned while fishing out of Grand Marais. One of the victims was Ronald Poll, a brother-in-law of Neal Beaver, owner and publisher of The Pilot (at the time of this first printing). A monument has been placed at the Grand Marais marina as a memorial to these men.

  Exactly one moth later, August 17, 1973, Lake Superior came close to claiming the lives of four more fishermen out of Grand Marais. After their boat sank, the men spend five hours in the waters of Lake Superior, being rescued when one of the men, Pete Tellier, managed to swim several miles to land.

  In the Grand Marais area there are many who know tragedy that comes from Lake Superior storms. The sinking of the Fitzgerald no doubt has brought memories sharply to mind. Many of the residents remember shipwrecks that took lives of relatives and friends.

   On November 25, 1932, the Lydia, a 54-foot power tug of Grand Marais, owned by Louis Larson and Walter Kadeau, sank when grounded on a sand bar just east of the East Pier at Grand Marais during a northeast gale. The Lydia fished out of Grand Marais, as well as the Racine, Wisconsin area.

  Five men lost their lives when the Lydia went down. These were Louis Larson, Thomas Larson, his nephew, Alex Manilla, John Tomkiel, and Fred Hazen.

   Louis Larson was the step-father of Rex Block of Grand Marais and the step-grandfather of Guy Block, the current principal of Grand Marais High School (at the time of this first printing in 1975).

   On May 22, 1945, the Eddie S., a 45-foot power tug of Grand Marais, owned by James McDonald and Louis C. Bethway, went down in precisely the same spot as the Lydia, just east of the East Pier at Grand Marais. In this tragedy Jim McDonald and Anthony Tornovich lost their lives. Beverly Bugg was also on the boat, and luckily he was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Rex Block had planned to be on the boat, but at the last moment changed his mind and did not make the trip. Rex was also working for the Eddie S. at the time.

    The sinking of the Steamer Fitzgerald this past month, in one of the most severe storms of the Great Lakes in the past 35 years, was the first major tragedy since the night of November 17, 1966, when the Steamer Henry J. Morrell sank in a storm in Lake Huron with the loss of 32 lives.

   Such tragedies are rare in this day and age. As we near the 21st century, marine navigation improves steadily. Especially since the Second World War, the science of navigation has advanced both on the high seas and the inland waterways. So, when a storm on the Great Lakes like the one which sent the carrier Steamer Edmund Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior with her captain and crew of 28 men, we can’t help but recall the past tragedies and make some comparisons.

  Those of us who remember our Michigan history know that the first vessel boat on the Great Lakes was LaSalle’s Griffin. This was the first commercial sailing vessel on the lakes, built in 1697. The next wreck occurred more than 200 years later. This was the wreck of the Schooner Nancy in 1814.

  The best source of information of shipwrecks of the Great Lakes is the historical work, “Shipwrecks of the Lakes,” written by Charles Dana Bowen, long recognized as one of the best marine historians. In his work, Bowen points out that, in the period of 1878-1898, the U.S. Commissioner of Navigation recorded 5,999 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Of those 1,093 were listed as total losses.

  In his history of Great Lakes shipwrecks Bowen lists some for every month of the year. The month of November, however, according to Bowen is the worst month for wrecks. Of the 597 wrecks listed by the historian, some 120 took place in November. Next highest month was October with 80.

   The year with the most wrecks was 1913 when 25 ships went down, about 20 of these between November 8 and 11.

   1935 was the next worst year, with 19 wrecks, 12 of them in November, between the 24th and 30th.

  It is believed that the greatest number of wrecks have been in Lake Superior and many of these in the area of Whitefish Point, near the recent tragic sinking of the Fitzgerald.

   According to Janice H. Gerred of Whitefish Point (where your editor began his teaching career some 30 years ago) there were 32 wrecks alone between the period 1890-1913, not including wrecks that occurred further down the bay towards Sault Ste. Marie.

  The largest vessel ever to sink in the Great Lakes, was the last victim, the Fitzgerald. It was built in 1958 (the year the Steamer Bradley went down), the first in the so-called 730-foot class of straight deck, lake bulk carriers. Some Canadian 730-footers have also sunk, but these went down in the St. Lawrence Seaway part of the Inland Seas system.

  E. J. Sundstrom, writing in the November 14, 1975, issue of the Sault Ste. Marie EVENING NEWS, comments: “A board of inquiry looking into the sinking of the Fitzgerald, probably within the next week, could well come to a determination that this heavily laden vessel fractured, split open and virtually shot to the bottom. There are two reasons for believing this. First is the ship virtually disappeared from the radar screen of the Steamer Arthur Anderson, which was following and watching the Fitzgerald. Second is the ship must have sunk too rapidly for crew members to leave the security of their cabins and make it to the safety of the large, self-inflatable, covered life rafts which were found empty and apparently unused the day after the sinking on the Canadian shore above Batchewana.”

  In his article, Sundstrom also notes similarities between the sinking of the Fitzgerald and the sinking of the Steamer Carl Bradley in Lake Michigan in 1958 and the sinking of the Steamer Morrell in Lake Huron in 1966. (The Bradley sank not far from Beaver Island. Another ore carrier, with Archie Minor, younger brother of the editor of The Pilot as wheelsman, anchored behind Beaver Island and narrowly escaped the fate of the Bradley which went down just a few miles ahead.)

  Sundstrom, in making his comment’s, adds: “In all three instances the ships were in the center of severe storms. All three sank so unexpectedly and suddenly that no calls for distress were made. Lake investigation of the first two wrecks disclosed that these ships were split a sunder and sank immediately. The only difference is that the Fitzgerald was abound with a heavy load and the other two were upbound and light.”

  Confirmation of E. J. Sundstrom’s prediction came in the November 19, 1975 issue of the DETROIT FREE PRESS. Jim Harper, a staff writer, commenting on the Fitzgerald tragedy, said: “The ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald broke apart when it sank suddenly in a northwest gale on Lake Superior, a preliminary inspection of Coast Guard sonar information shows.”

  Harper goes on to state, “The wreck was found by a Navy anti-submarine aircraft three days after the sinking in 535 feet of water. It was located 12 miles west of Canada’s Coppermine Point, the closest land.”

  A team of experts under the direction of Dr. Lloyd Breslau of the Coast Guard’s research and development center, who were flown to the scene from Groton, Connecticut, said their sonar findings showed two objects - - - presumably the fore and after sections of the Fitzgerald - - - - lying between 150 and 250 feet apart and perpendicular to one another.

  The Steamer Fitzgerald, chartered by the Olgebay Norton Company of Cleveland, was bound from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan, with 26,216 tons of taconite pellets when it disappeared during the storm. Winds at the time were gusting up to 80 miles per hour and waves were 25 feet high. The captain had spoken by radio with another vessel, some 10 miles away, shortly before it disappeared from the radar screen. At the time the captain of the Fitzgerald indicated no apprehension when they talked, there was no alarm broadcast before the trailing ship lost the Fitzgerald on radar. Just as Sundstrom had said, the Fitzgerald apparently sank too rapidly for crew members to reach the safety of the life rafts.

  During the storm there was quite a bit of damage in the Grand Marais area. Many large trees along M-77 were blown across the road and had to be cut before the highway could be used. Some large evergreens were knocked down in front of the Graham Cabins (now two different residences) east of Grand Marais. At Welker’s Lodge (now Northshore Lodge), the sign was blown over and some of the shingles came off the motel. A number of TV antennas were bent. Just west of town, Walt Mixon’s chimney was blown from the house. Area residents said it was the worst wind storm that they could recall.