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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Most weeks I write a column for my paper; occasionally my daughter writes one. Usually they're focused at local issues, but every now and then I come up with one that I think Spearfish Lake Tales readers would find interesting, so I post them on the Spearfish Lake Tales Message Board. Since I've been neglecting "Shorts, Outtakes and Rants" recently, I decided to repost a few of them here, like this one. I hope you enjoy it! -- Wes

The Legend Lives On

November 11, 2015

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee . . .

Yes, believe it or not, this week it's been forty years since the Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a "witch of November" storm on Lake Superior, leaving behind a legend that echoes on down to us today, at least partly in thanks to Gordon Lightfoot's ballad.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was the last major ship loss on the Great Lakes, and it somehow seems surprising that it's been that long. In the twenty years or so preceding the fabled sinking there were several other ship losses. There was a commercial fishing boat lost on Lake Michigan back, oh, ten or fifteen years ago, but it's certianly not in the category of the Fitzgerald.

Most of us know the story -- how the iron ore freighter left Duluth on a late season run down the lakes, got caught up in the storm, and disappeared off the radar screen on the Arthur M. Anderson a few miles behind. In the radio conversations between the Fitzgerald and the Anderson there was some indication that the Fitzgerald was having some problems, but nothing serious; the last transmission from the Fitzgerald to the Anderson was the ironic, "We're holdin' our own."

There is debate to this day over what caused the big freighter to go down -- an inadvertent grounding, bad seals on the hatches, and a big wave causing the ship to break up have all been indicated, and none of them theories can be proven.

The part of the story that has always rung loudly for me is what happened after the Anderson told the Coast Guard in Sault Ste. Marie that the Fitzgerald had disappeared. The initial reaction of the Coast Guard was muted; they did not appear to take the report seriously. While the Coast Guard may not have been willing to go out and search for the missing ship, that didn't stop the Arthur M. Anderson and the William Clay Ford along with a couple of salties, from turning around, leaving the relative safety of Whitefish Bay, and steaming back out into the worst Great Lakes storm in years in the faint hopes of somehow relieving their fellow sailors.

Some years ago I saw a painting of the Anderson searching through the storm for survivors, a single searchlight futilely reaching out in hopes of finding something, someone. You all know I'm always interested in stories where someone reaches out to help someone else, in spite of danger or difficulty, and it shows up very strongly in the Fitzgerald saga.

Perhaps it's the fact that for forty years the Fitzgerald has been the most recent major ship sinking on the Great Lakes has had something to do with the legend, and if it continues that was for another forty or hundred and forty years, it will be just fine with me. But there have been a number of books written about the sinking of the Fitzgerald, at least two plays (I've seen one of them,) and many TV shows. I'm actually a little surprised that there has never been a movie -- it would be a good one. There is a pretty good museum at Whitefish Point that has a lot of Fitzgerald history and memorabilia.

But the story of the Fitzgerald is more than just the story of a ship sinking -- it's the story of the twenty-eight men who died when it went down, twenty-eight lives snuffed out. A long time ago, I worked in Rogers City, where there are many men who work on the lake freighters hauling stone out of Calcite. In 1958, one of those boats, the Carl D. Bradley, sank in Lake Michigan, and only two men survived. There were several Bradley widows still around when I worked there, and children of the men who died in the sinking. Perhaps that gave me a little different focus on history -- at least a little better focus on the human angle.

But yes, the legend lives on . . .

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