When launched in June 1958, she was the largest boat working the Great Lakes (at 711ft long, 71ft wide and 33 ft deep), and her loss in a Lake Superior storm on November 10th., 1975 remains the Great Lakes' biggest maritime disaster.
Nicknamed Mighty Fitz, Fitz, or Big Fitz, the ship suffered some minor mishaps on launch day: it took three attempts to break the champagne bottle used to christen her and she collided with a pier when she entered the water. Some sailors might have regarded that as an omen…
...yet for 17 years the Fitzgerald carried taconite ore from mines in Minnesota, to iron works in Detroit and other ports, virtually trouble-free. As a workhorse she set seasonal haul records six different times, often beating her own previous record. Her size and record-breaking performance were impressive.
In the afternoon of November 9th., 1975 with a full cargo of ore, the Fitz began her fateful last voyage from Superior, Wisconsin. En route to a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan, she joined a second freighter, SS Arthur M. Anderson. By the next day, the two ships were caught in a massive winter storm, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35ft/11m high.
The last communication with Edmund Fitzgerald was at about 7:10 p.m. when Anderson notified her she'd been hit by three towering waves, and that they were headed in the Fitz's direction. Captain McSorley replied, "We're holding our own." Only minutes later, Big Fitz abruptly sank into the frigid waters of Lake Superior, approx. 15nm/27km from Whitefish Bay. No distress signals were sent. Her crew of 29 died. No bodies were recovered.
The following year a US Navy search found the wreckage 530ft/160m down - its hull broken in half, probably when it hit the bottom, the two sections lieing only metres apart from each other.
Many books, studies and expeditions have pondered the cause of the sinking: she may have suffered structural failure, been swamped with water entering through cargo hatches or deck (later dismissed after the Navy found the hatch covers in almost perfect condition), experienced topside damage, shoaled in a shallow part of the lake, or fallen victim to the storm’s high waves...
[For those unfamiliar with wave action, whether in lakes or oceans, there's a phenomenon called a 'rogue wave'. These waves form unexpectedly and can reach nearly 100ft high! These aren't tsunamis (which are formed by earthquakes), but vertical walls of water preceded by troughs so deep they're referred to "holes in the sea". Here is astounding and frightening compiled footage of the power of rogue waves...] The loss is now almost definitively blamed on the trio of rogue waves warned about by the Anderson.
The Fitz is the largest and best-known vessel lost on the Great Lakes but she's not alone on the Lake Superior seabed in that area. From 1816 to the sinking of the Fitzgerald in 1975, the Whitefish Point area alone claimed at least 240 ships...
The sinking is the most well-known disaster in the history of Great Lakes shipping. Gordon Lightfoot sang about it in his 1976 hit "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".