Remembering the FitzgeraldMarilynn Peterson first saw a broadcast about the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on the nightly news.
Marilynn Peterson first saw a broadcast about the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on the nightly news.
“We were watching TV…and I said, ‘oh my God, is that my dad’s boat?’ A few minutes later the phone rang. It was my aunt calling,” she recalled.
Her aunt told her that the Fitzgerald had sunk and her father, a crewmember, was missing. Peterson said that she and and her husband drove to the home of her mother in Silver Bay and stayed awake all night, waiting for news.
“I just kept thinking they were going to find survivors,” she said.
They never did. All 29 crewmembers on the Edmund Fitzgerald, including her father Nolan Church, died when the ship sank on Nov. 10, 1975.
Almost 40 years later, the legend of the Fitzgerald lives on. Gordon Lightfoot, a Canadian singer-songwriter, firmly established its place in the annals of music history with his ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” released just a year after the ship sank. Since then, many books, documentaries and even musicals have been produced about the wreck. An event commemorating the Fitzgerald and its casualties at Split Rock Lighthouse still draws a thousand or so visitors to the shores of Lake Superior each November.
“(The wreck) has all the earmarks of a Hollywood movie,” explained Thom Holden, director of Lake Superior Maritime Visitor’s Center in Canal Park which has an exhibit about the Fitzgerald. The story is steeped in mystery: the Coast Guard investigated the wreck but found no definitive answers to why the ship sank and “no one lived to tell the tale,” he added.
The ship departed from Superior, Wis. with a full load of taconite ore pellets. It was headed to Detroit when it got caught in a November storm with 30-foot waves and hurricane-force winds. It began taking on water and sank in the Canadian waters of Lake Superior without sending distress signals.
“The Coast Guard said it sank because it lost buoyancy…how it got to that point is the question,” Holden said.
Many questions remain unanswered, but the tragedy led to stricter Great Lakes shipping regulations. To date, it remains the largest freighter to have sunk in Lake Superior.
Peterson’s father worked at Reserve Mining Co. in Silver Bay before taking his job as a porter on the Fitzgerald.
“He’d see those boats come in, and he really thought it’d be fun,” she said. Her mother worried that it was a dangerous job, but Church assured her that the ship was too big to be unsafe in the water. He was 55 when the Fitzgerald sank.
Lee Radzak, the site manager at Split Rock Lighthouse, was driving from Two Harbors to Silver Bay in November 1985 when he came up with the idea to light the beacon at Split Rock in remembrance of the Fitzgerald’s sinking. Local folks noticed the flashing beacon of the decommissioned lighthouse and word quickly spread. The solemn lighting has become an annual event that includes the ringing of a bell—once for each of the 29 victims of the tragedy.
“It resonates with people…the danger of the lake. It’s always unpredictable,” Radzak said.
He expects at least 1,000 visitors at Saturday’s event. The lighthouse and visitor’s center will be open noon to 6 p.m. except for a ceremony of remembrance at 4:30 p.m. when the names of the Fitzgerald’s 29 lost crewmembers will be read to the tolling of a ships bell. Then, the lighthouses’ beacon will be lit and visitors may tour the tower. A film about the wreck will be shown continuously throughout the afternoon.
While Peterson will be out of town this weekend, she’s attended the event before. She always thinks of her dad around Nov. 10, whether she visits Split Rock or not.
“Every year at this time, you get that spooky feeling,” she said.
The last time Peterson saw her dad, he had just returned to port and the family met him in Superior. He was wearing a huge cowboy hat “just to embarrass us,” she said with a laugh. They went out for a nice dinner together and he presented each of them with a small gift.
“He bought me a sweater, and for the longest time I could not get rid of it,” she said.