Skip to comments.Shipwreck overshadowed Fitzgerald's legacy [Biography]
Posted on 11/10/2005 3:51:03 PM PST by ZGuy
Edmund Fitzgerald's office at the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee overlooked the blue of Lake Michigan.
Peering out his window or at the walls, hung with pictures of seagoing bulk carriers - one named for him and another for his father - he often would ruminate about his own maritime heritage.
His father and grandfather ran a Milwaukee shipyard. His grandfather's five brothers were master mariners on the Great Lakes. Fitzgerald himself spent many of his younger days amid the sweet-smelling wood shavings and tarred rope yarn found within the yard.
So it seemed a natural fit when, as president of Northwestern Mutual in the 1950s, Fitzgerald pushed for the insurance giant to invest in what would become, at the time, the largest bulk carrier ever to ply the inland oceans.
More than two football fields long and weighing more than 13,600 tons when empty, the ship was an engineering feat and christened in 1958 with a champagne bottle by Fitzgerald's wife at a dock on the Detroit River.
The iron ore carrier made 748 round trips from western Lake Superior to Detroit and Cleveland without incident.
Today is the 30th anniversary of its interrupted 749th trip, when the "Mighty Fitz" sank during a storm on Lake Superior, scant miles from safe harbor, killing the 29 men aboard.
The tragedy and its remembrance, fueled by the elongate ballad by the Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot, have captivated residents of the region almost since the day of the horror, when the ship's captain last reported, "We are holding our own."
Scores of books, films and articles have been produced, and the ship remains the most noted of the some 6,000 to go to the bottom of the Great Lakes.
This interest has in many ways overshadowed the legacy of the ship's namesake, a leader for decades in Milwaukee whose fingerprints are on almost every enduring civic investment. Perhaps understandably, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald has as a story eclipsed the work of Edmund Fitzgerald the man.
From the port of Milwaukee to the arts center, the post office to the War Memorial, Fitzgerald was a "one-man army" as The Milwaukee Journal editorialized, for aggrandizing the city's institutions in the postwar period. He was a national innovator in health care provision, served on countless boards and commissions and was a strong patron of the city's arts organizations.
"He was extraordinarily active, one of the several, but not too many giants, of the city," said his son-in-law, Richard Cutler of Mequon. "People remember what he did in getting things done."
Fitzgerald died in 1986 at the age of 90.
He was born in Milwaukee, served as an artillery captain during World War I and graduated from Yale University before returning home to work at the Milwaukee Malleable Iron Co., where he rose to be secretary. He was elected to the board at Northwestern Mutual in 1933 and was made its chairman in 1958, retiring two years later.
His health already was in decline at the time of the sinking, though his two children acknowledged in interviews this week the hold the ship had on their father's life.
Edmund B. Fitzgerald, 79, himself a major figure in Milwaukee's civic history who worked with Bud Selig to bring the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee and restore the city's baseball status, recalled in an interview the great swell of pride his father felt for the ship.
It was named for him after he was ushered out of a board meeting in a sort of parliamentary trick, since other members knew that the humble Fitzgerald would decline the bestowal.
But he grew into the idea and on June 8, 1958, he was there at the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Michigan for the ship's debut.
As it was launched sideways in "guillotine" fashion, loud blasts were heard from another ship that steamed by, the carrier William E. Fitzgerald, named for his father.
"Without a doubt, that was the happiest day of my father's life," said Edmund B. Fitzgerald, a retired executive and now a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "I think (Nov. 10, 1975) was probably the worst day of my father's life. He was terribly distraught that a ship with his name on it would sink and take so many lives."
"It was such a terrible thing," said his daughter, Elizabeth Cutler, who has continued his legacy through her involvement with a maritime historical society.
Richard Cutler said his father-in-law later rarely spoke of the disaster.
Lightfoot had tried to visit with Fitzgerald but was turned away. Edmund B. Fitzgerald met the singer at a dinner in the 1980s hosted by the Canadian prime minister.
"I told him what my name was, and he looked rather surprised," said Edmund B. Fitzgerald, who called the artist's 1976 hit a "fine song."
As for their father, he and his sister said they did not believe their father ever had heard it.
A bit different from the other posts. I thought someone might enjoy it.
ttt and i did
thanks for the post
Well, yeah, sort of...if you discount running aground, hitting the lock's wall 3 times and colliding with another ship.
Well sometimes things just happen.
Hip Hip Hooray
Has the Cat Stevens rammed anything lately?
Nice picture! Thanks!
Before the ramming.
I've read that some of the deck hatches weren't secured.
And yes, they did locate the wreckage and the only item ever salvaged was the ship's bell.
This earlier thread covers many of the theories:
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T'was the witch of November come stealin'.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin'.
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'.
Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it's been good t'know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call 'Gitche Gumee'.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early
The cargo hatches (latches) were not well designed, or well secured, or both, and during the storm the waves breaking over the ship flooded the compartments and broke its back.
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