by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 1378.
Today, just a lake! The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
The Great Lakes are just that
to most of us. They're just lakes. When I was a
child, I'd visit the north shore of Lake Superior
in the summertime. As its gentle waves lapped at my
feet, it seemed just like ten thousand other
Minnesota lakes. The only difference was that you
couldn't see the other side. It revealed none of
the majesty or the menace of the open seas. Yet the
voyage from Duluth to the eastern end of Lake
Ontario is almost a thousand miles.
The Sault Ste Marie locks opened in 1855; and they
connected Lake Superior to Lake Huron. Iron ore
began moving from Minnesota's Mesabi Range eastward
to the steel mills. As shipping began in earnest,
we saw why the Indians named Lake Superior
Gitche Gumee -- why they held it in awe.
Ships found themselves sailing a treacherous ocean.
Today, we count some six thousand Great Lakes
shipwrecks, and November seems to be the worst
month. On November 13, 1913, a single storm sank 12
ships and killed 250 people. The great blizzard of
November 11, 1940 (which I remember from my
childhood in Minnesota), sank two ships and killed
The largest ship went down on November 10th, 1975.
It was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. The
day before, the 17-year-old Fitzgerald
had left Superior, Wisconsin, loaded with almost
30,000 tons of iron ore pellets called
taconite. In her star-crossed life the
Fitzgerald had run aground once, she'd
collided with the walls of the locks twice, she'd
lost an anchor on one trip and suffered structural
cracking on another. This time she left Superior
with two damaged hatches. And twenty minutes after
she sailed, gale warnings were posted. Just past
midnight, winds were reaching sixty miles per hour
and driving ten-foot waves.
Typical ore boat of the same size and vintage as the Edmund Fitzgerald.
(Photo by John Lienhard in 2013)
By the afternoon of November 10th, the
Fitzgerald had suffered more damage
and was running both her 7000-gallon-per-minute
pumps. Then she lost the single antenna that served
both her radar units. So she radioed the Whitefish
Point radio station and asked for help with
navigation. Now her troubles really began
The Whitefish radio beacon was out. The
Fitzgerald might've been helped by
radio equipment aboard an ocean ship that was in
port at Whitewater. But that ship's captain scoffed
at the storm. He said, "This is just a
lake," and he sailed off.
So the Fitzgerald blindly rode 16-foot
waves. She began to list. With water washing over
her wheelhouse the captain sent a last tight-lipped
message: "We're holding our own." Then the
Fitzgerald and her 29-person crew
vanished. The following spring, search boats found
what was left of her on the bottom. Like the
Titanic, she'd split in two as she
sank. The stern section lay upside down, the bow,
right side up.
Gitche Gumee had claimed her 6000th ship, and we're
left with those words, "It's just a lake." After
118 years this ocean, posing as a lake, was still
deceiving us with her placid everyday face.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Morris, K. and Rowlands, P., Exploring Shipwrecks.
New York: Gallery Books, 1988, pp. 62-79.
For more on the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald,
see the Wikipedia entry about it.
My thanks to Jim Bell, KUHF-FM Radio, for suggesting the topic.
For more on Great Lakes wrecks, see Episode 333.
Gitche Gumee was made into common currency by Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha. (see,
e.g., New York: Hurst & Co. Pubs., 1898) It derives from the
Obijway language term for the Lake: Otchipwe-kitchi-gami.
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis,
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
No episode about the Edmund Fitzgerald is complete without a link to Gordon Lightfoot's song,
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
One of two lifboats from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Both floated ashore, damaged and empty.
(Photo by John Lienhard)
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