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Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Top of the Lookout Trail at Pancake Bay. (Photo courtesy of Dave Sproule, Ontario Parks)

Why Gordon Lightfoot's Classic Song is so Memorable

Lake Superior: Awe-inspiring, beautiful and cruel – The Greatest of the Great Lakes.



On November 10, 1975 an ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sank in Lake Superior during a November storm, taking the lives of all 29 crew members. Later that month, Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, inspired by an article in Newsweek Magazine, wrote what is probably his most famous song: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Music and lyrics ©1976 by Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee."
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the "Gales of November" came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
with a crew and good captain well seasoned,
concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
And later that night when the ship's bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

To anyone that may remember this wonderful song (it hit #2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1976), written in dedication to the 29 souls that rest forever in the depths of Lake Superior, you only have to hear the first few lines before the haunting melody becomes stuck in your mind and heart.

It was the gales of November on Lake Superior that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald. The November Gales are a phenomenon that each year brings photographers and artists to the shores of this great lake to capture the energy, power and emotion of this great body of water as it surges and fights the coming winter. Today, whether by canvas, or by point-and-shoot, acclaimed and novice artists gather to capture the strength of Lake Superior as it cascades and crashes into shorelines that, just a few short months earlier, were filled with sunbathers on those hot, sultry summer days in Algoma. It's a body of water that commands respect and that can turn on you if you fail to show her deference, when the calendar rolls to November.

Paying Respect: Where the Wreck Lies

What few visitors realize, as they enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the big lake in the summer, is that you can stop along the highway at Pancake Bay Provincial Park and hike the Lookout Trail where you can view Batchawana Bay area and the direction of where the Edmund Fitzgerald's final resting place is located. (The ship lies in about 300 feet of water (half its length) almost directly west of Pancake Bay, west of Coppermine Point, on the Canadian side of the border). In fact, there are five shipwrecks around Pancake Bay / Coppermine Point and one of them is called the Batchawana that sank in 1907. While you enjoy the majesty of mighty Lake Superior, should the haunting tune of Gordon Lightfoot enter your mind, close your eyes and remember the November Gales of 1975.

lookout trail pancake bay
(Photo courtesy of Dave Sproule, Ontario Parks)

Does any one know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the Gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
in the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral."
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call "GitcheGumee."
"Superior," they said, "never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early!"

The Edmund Fitzgerald is amongst the largest and best-known vessels lost on the Great Lakes. She is not alone on the Lake Superior seabed in this area. In the years between 1816, when the Invincible was lost, to the sinking of the Fitzgerald in 1975, the Whitefish Point area has claimed at least 240 ships.

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