“Every man knew, as the captain did too,
“‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’”
— Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
A few minutes past 7 p.m. on Nov. 10, 1975, on a bitter and brutal night on Lake Superior, Capt. Ernie McSorley and his shipmates on the Edmund Fitzgerald were in a fight for their lives in a storm more violent than anything they had ever encountered.
The great ship was in peril, and when the end came, it came with such suddenness and ferocity there was no time for an SOS, no time for anything but a few seconds of desperation and terror as the fastest, grandest freighter on the Great Lakes slipped into the depths and into history.
Forty years later, those of us who lost a loved one that night still don’t know for sure how the Great Lakes’ most legendary tragedy occurred. We know what sank the Titanic. But exactly what caused the Big Fitz to disappear remains a mystery that may never be solved.
More than 1,500 souls perished when the Titanic sank. Just 29 were lost when the Fitz went down.
Just 29. As if a number so small lessens the tragedy and heartbreak for those whose father or brother or son — or in my case, uncle — died that night.
Ralph Grant Walton was born outside of Sycamore, Ohio, in Wyandot County, in 1917. His remains lie at the bottom of Lake Superior along with those of his 28 shipmates, just 17 miles from the safe harbor they sought that night, Whitefish Bay, Mich.
Today, with the 40th anniversary of the sinking approaching, visitors to Pleasant Ridge Cemetery near Sycamore can see a stone marker that bears my uncle’s name, the dates of his birth and death, and these three words of remembrance: Lost at sea.
Uncle Grant was an oiler on the Fitzgerald. His job was to keep the mighty engines running smoothly. He was good at it.
That’s the thing about the men who were lost. They were all good at what they did. To be assigned to the Fitzgerald, the flagship of the fleet and the “Queen of the Great Lakes,” was an honor for the officers and seamen of Columbia Transportation, a division of the old Oglebay-Norton Co.
The Fitz was held in awe everywhere she went. She was a tourist attraction, especially when she sailed through the Soo Locks connecting Lakes Huron and Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At 729 feet long, she was the equivalent of a 70-story skyscraper on its side.
Even though the ship’s stern bore the name of Milwaukee, the home of her owners, the Fitz was Toledo’s ship. Her customary itinerary was to ferry more than 25,000 tons of taconite iron ore from the Mesabi Range in Minnesota to Toledo, and do it quickly.
Veteran lakers often called her the Toledo Express because of her speed and the tonnage records she routinely set. Several crew members who died when she sank were from here.
I still feel the loss of my uncle, but I have an emotional attachment to the Fitzgerald for another reason. I was a crew member in 1963. My job as a porter was to help feed the crew, care for the officers’ quarters, and tend to the needs of our guests.
Passengers aboard the Fitzgerald traveled free. Usually they were executives of firms that did business with the shipping company.
I have many memories of the Fitz, most of them good. For several weeks during my season aboard, my father, Wade, a chief engineer for Columbia, was transferred from another ship to become chief on the Fitz.
So my dad and I got to be shipmates. I kidded him that in length of service, I was the senior member of the Walton family aboard the Fitz, not him.
It was only through good fortune and the grace of God that my dad was not on the Fitzgerald the night she sank. He was out in the storm, but on another vessel. He could have taken accrued vacation time to get off the lakes in November when the weather is at its worst, but he didn’t. He was a laker. He needed to be out there.
After the tragedy, which took his brother and took his love for what he was doing, my dad retired.
This year’s milestone anniversary, a week from tomorrow, will have special relevance. Locally, the National Museum of the Great Lakes will host a remembrance ceremony downtown at Fifth Third Center at One Seagate and premiere a documentary: A Good Ship and Crew Well Seasoned: The Fitzgerald and Her Legacy.
Forty years. And as Gordon Lightfoot wrote, “the legend lives on, from the Chippewa on down.”
Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91. Contact him at: email@example.com.
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