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.
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.
That 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.
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