The Legend Lives On: SS Edmund Fitzgerald remembered 40 years after its sinking

By Susan R. Pollack

This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.

It has been called “the Titanic of the Great Lakes” and ranks among the most famous shipwrecks in American history.

Today, 40 years after the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the legend lives on and continues to intrigue the public. even for those too young to remember the 1975 Michigan maritime tragedy, Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting ballad immortalized the Nov. 10 disaster when “the gales of November” came early and the massive freighter sank in Lake Superior with all 29 crewmen aboard.

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Photo by Bob Campbell/Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

To this day, there are many theories but no consensus on why the 729-foot ore carrier disappeared from radar and plunged to its watery grave. What is known is that the Fitzgerald, once regarded as the “Queen of the Great Lakes,” was buffeted during a ferocious storm by hurricane-force winds and blinding snow squalls; it went down in less than 10 minutes with no reports of a distress call and no survivors to tell the tale.

Nowhere is the infamous event — and the many theories surrounding it — more enshrined than at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point on Lake Superior. Each year, from May 1 through Oct. 31, some 65,000 travelers visit this attraction, north of the town of Paradise, in the upper Peninsula. known as “the graveyard of the Great lakes,” the southern Lake superior region is littered with the skeletons of at least 240 shipwrecks.

And while the museum honors three centuries of Great Lakes shipwrecks (estimated at 6,000), the star attraction is the Edmund Fitzgerald, Superior’s last and most famous victim. Broken in two pieces, the ill-fated Fitz lies 17 miles off Whitefish Point, 535 frigid feet below the lake’s surface.

“We get people here from all over the world — it’s amazing what a song and a story can do,” says Terry Begnoche, site manager of the museum, whose centerpiece is the Fitzgerald’s gleaming, 200-pound bronze bell recovered from the wreck site 20 years after the disaster. In its place, divers installed a replica bell inscribed with names of the lost crew as a permanent underwater grave marker.

Decades after the mysterious sinking, the museum is welcoming throngs of visitors during this milestone 40th anniversary year, which culminates Nov. 10 with its annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial service. In keeping with tradition, the ship’s restored bell will toll 30 times: 29 times for the Fitzgerald’s crew and a 30th time for all the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great lakes.
The 7 p.m. ceremony will feature Great lakes maritime historian Fred Stonehouse, whose latest book, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: 40th Anniversary Edition, was recently released.

In it, he lays out the myriad theories surrounding the tragedy, including unsecured hatch covers, a trio of 30-foot-plus rogue waves known as the “Three Sisters,” and the notions that the Edmund Fitzgerald was either structurally unsound or incurred damage from hitting a shoal.

On the September day I visited the museum, Lake Superior was as calm as could be. Standing on the sandy beach gazing at the tranquil blue water, it was hard to fathom the long ago tragedy and the fierce storm that caused it.

Fitzgerald2Gabor_EThat is, until my chance meeting with Fran Gabor. She and her husband, Terry, had driven nearly 500 miles north from Ohio to pay respects to her late uncle, Edward Francis Bindon, who was first assistant engineer on the star-crossed Edmund Fitzgerald. “No one’s ever been here to represent him,” she said of her seafaring Uncle Eddie, who had no siblings and no children. “I feel much better now.”

As Lightfoot’s ballad played in the darkened, moody museum, Gabor shared details about her lost uncle that gave me goose bumps. Sadly, the Fitzgerald’s late season sailing was to have been his final voyage  — he’d planned to come home and retire after that, she says.

What’s more, just days after learning of the sinking, his grieving widow got a surprise delivery, a veritable gift from the grave. While in port in Duluth, Minn., Gabor said, Bindon had bought his wife a two-carat diamond ring as a surprise 25th anniversary gift. But he gave it to a friend for safekeeping.

“For some reason, he didn’t want to take it aboard the ship. He just had an ominous feeling — at least that’s how it seems,” said Gabor, who still recalls her family gathered in the kitchen, crying. “My aunt never remarried and she wore that ring the rest of her life.”

This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

More Than Music: Motown helped to define Detroit in the 1960s and beyond

By Nicole Rupersburg

This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN.

Detroit may be best known as the Motor City, the birthplace of the automotive industry, but it is also a music-driven city, the birthplace of multi-time Grammy-winning rapper Eminem and multi-time Grammy-winning garage rock outfit The White Stripes. It is also the birthplace of techno music. But before all of that, there was Motown.

“Motown” means a few different things. A combination of “motor” (for the Motor City) and “town,” it was a record label founded in Detroit. But it also refers to “the Motown Sound,” a pop-friendly kind of soul music, which the label made commercially successful across the country and became one of the definitive styles of the 1960s. And as much as that, it also became a new identity for Detroit, which is now referred to as “Motown” just as much as it is “the Motor City.”

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Motown Museum

Motown Records was a record company started by Berry Gordy, Jr. in 1959 in Detroit, who is said to have modeled the label’s production after the automotive assembly lines. While there were several separate labels under the Motown Record Corporation, they all used the same writers, producers and artists, and are known collectively, simply as “Motown.” The Motown Sound, as it came to be known, was rooted in African American soul music with a heavy pop influence. At the time, Elvis Presley and his radio-friendly mix of rock, pop and blues were already enormously popular, and across the pond the Beatles would soon skyrocket to immortal fame. But while these white artists were getting hugely rich and famous for the music they made that was deeply rooted in black music, black musicians were not seeing the same meteoric rise to success.

That is, until Motown.

While none of the names that made Motown most popular are names that history has treated with  the same reverence as Elvis or the Beatles, Motown was hugely significant in other ways. Elvis and the Beatles were single acts, moments in time that were akin to lightning striking. But Motown was a movement. It was its own genre, its own distinct sound. It was a cultural zeitgeist. It put the Motor City on the map for more than just cars. It created a whole new identity for Detroit, but not just the predominantly black city – for black Americans as a whole.

In the 1960s, the African American Civil Rights Movement was peaking, with activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. becoming loud voices on a national scale. A race riot in Detroit in 1943 started what has been known as “white flight,” with whites abandoning the city and fleeing to the suburbs while blacks remained in the urban core. Racial tensions remained high and erupted in another riot in 1967, this one precipitated by police actions against a large group of blacks celebrating the return home of two local GIs from Vietnam. Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This was a tumultuous time in American history, perhaps the most violent and turbulent time period in America since the Civil War 100 years earlier.

And during this time, black musicians saw their first moment in the white-dominated spotlight of commercial success, all thanks to Motown. Gordy, a former boxer and autoworker, and fledgling songwriter, established Motown Records, a blackowned and black-focused business that put black artists on the same level as  Elvis and the Beatles.

Gordy erected a sign that read “Hitsville U.S.A.” on the front of the Motown Records headquarters at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. While the sign might have been a bit preemptive, it would ultimately prove prophetic: Motown has produced 191 Billboard No. 1 tracks from the likes of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and the woefully overlooked studio musicians the Funk Brothers, who collectively played on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined. Timeless Motown hits include “I Can’t Help Myself,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” “Baby Love,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “My Girl,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Get Ready,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” Some say that no other record company in history has exerted such an enormous influence on popular music and culture.

In 1972, Gordy moved Motown permanently out of Detroit to Los Angeles, and in 1988 he sold Motown Record Corporation to MCA. The label has bounced around a few different record companies since then and has continued to produce hits, but has never been as prolific as it was during its golden years in the 1960s.

Today, you can experience Motown as it was at the Motown Museum, housed in the original headquarters of the record label on Grand River Blvd., where the “Hitsville U.S.A.” sign is still displayed out front. Visitors can stop by Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with increased hours in the summer) for guided tours of the museum for only $10 per person. The original house is small but filled with artifacts from the Motown era, including Michael Jackson’s iconic beaded white glove. The knowledgeable and engaging docents will guide you on the tour, loading you up with history, giving you time to explore the old photographs, walking you through the famous Studio A (the garage studio where all the artists recorded their hits), and even leading a few spirited sing-alongs and group dance routines. This is not the usual hushed museum experience; this is a true Motown experience. For more information go to motownmuseum.org.

This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

Museum Marvel

By Amy S. Eckert

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.

Boys and collections just seem to go together. Baseball cards. Superhero figures. Interesting rocks. And just like any other young man, Henry Ford built his own collection. Only Ford wasn’t young. And his hoard included the presidential limousine that John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated.

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Henry Ford’s collection began with the simple motive of preserving objects that documented American innovation and genius. What followed from Ford’s hobby eventually became the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. It seems that with enough connections — and a big enough bank account — an avid collector can amass an array of artifacts that could leave the docents at the Smithsonian institution drooling.

Housed within a building patterned after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the Henry Ford Museum includes the automobile baron’s personal memorabilia, a collection that recounts the American story and that has been designated a national historic landmark. An astonishing 12 acres of display space present approximately 26 million objects and documents if you take into account Greenfield Village, an adjoining outdoor historical museum also furnished by Henry Ford.

LincolnChairBehind the museum’s doors are such notable icons as the chair in which Abraham Lincoln sat when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth; the world’s oldest steam engine; the Montgomery, Alabama, bus that carried Rosa Parks on the day she refused to give up her seat; Thomas Edison’s complete Menlo Park laboratory; and John F. Kennedy’s presidential limousine. Some artifacts rank as far less consequential, if no less fun. A case in point: the wacky red-and-yellow Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.

It’s no great surprise that a large portion of the Henry Ford Museum is dedicated to the American automobile. In 2012 a new arrangement of Ford’s vehicle collection, titled “Driving America,” organizes the museum’s car collection around its effect on American culture. Eighty thousand square feet of exhibit space showcase impressive vehicles like the 1865 Roper, the oldest surviving American car; the 1896 Quadricycle, Ford’s first automobile; Ford’s original 1901 Model-T; the 1967 Ford Mark IV race car, the first all-American car to win at Le Mans; and a series of presidential vehicles from Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan.

Multi-media displays fill the spaces between the automotive superstars, each putting in plain words the cars’ back stories. Touch-screen panels explain the workings of vehicle powertrains. Digital photographs recount memorable automobile ads and popular road-tripping songs over the generations. And still another display helps visitors learn how to speak like a CB radio operator. The interactive exhibits also give visitors a chance to include personal memories they’ve built around the cars in their lives.

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And beyond the automobiles themselves are exhibits that explore the ways in which automobiles transformed the American landscape, ranging from a 1946 diner, Lamy’s, originally located in Marlboro, Massachusetts, to a 1960 neon Mcdonald’s sign advertising hamburgers for 15 cents and old AAA road maps.

Other fascinating themed areas at the Henry Ford Museum include “Heroes of the Sky” highlighting dozens of historic airplanes — Byrd’s arctic Fokker, a Sikorsky helicopter, and early commercial and barnstorming planes — and “Made in America,” focusing largely on American manufacturing innovation.

Greenfield Village, adjacent to the museum complex, further encapsulates Ford’s infatuation with history and the world’s innovators. More than 80 genuine 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century homes were transported by Henry Ford from throughout the United states and Europe to bring history to life in suburban Detroit. among the highlights in greenfield Village are the Wright Brothers’ original bicycle shop, the Menlo Park laboratory where Thomas Edison succeeded in inventing the light bulb, an authentic English Cotswold cottage, and the residences of Noah Webster and Robert Frost.

It only seems fitting that the Henry Ford’s most recent addition is a strictly automotive-themed attraction. the Ford Rouge Factory, a complex which at its peak included 93 buildings, nearly 16 million square feet of floor space and 120 miles of conveyors, was added to the museum’s list of attractions in 2010. Visitors view the production of Ford’s most popular truck, the F-150, through the magic of virtual reality and a working assembly plant walking tour.

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.