THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
From My Window
Issue Date: November 9, 2016
By Jane Thibodeau Martin
This year will mark the 41st anniversary of the last major ship loss on the Great Lakes, the sinking of the 729 foot Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10th, 1975. This event captured my interest at the time, in fact I still have the front page of the Marinette Eagle-Star from the following day with the headline and photo of the great ship. I've always been fascinated by Great Lakes shipping, a love that grew from our inexpensive family entertainments of watching the comings and goings of the local ship traffic at the small harbor at the mouth of the Menominee River from the lighthouse pier.
No one on the ship survived the sinking, and even today, with numerous exploratory surveys by miniature subs of the wreckage on the floor of Lake Superior, there no agreement on what caused the wreck. Clearly there was a very significant storm sweeping the area at the time, but other ships were out in the lake and made their next port safely. Something went drastically wrong on the "Big Fitz," but definitive proof of exactly what that was may never be found.
There are many photos of the ship wreckage underwater available on the internet. The wreck is deep in unlit black waters, and the ice cold temperatures and fresh water have preserved it almost exactly like it appeared 41 years ago. The pictures are both repelling, and yet beautiful in a sort of creepy way, and I can't get enough of them. In fact I have a large framed picture of the ship in a storm on my dining room wall, a memento of a long-ago visit to the wonderful Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point. I bought my son a large print also, of the actual wreckage as it appears on the bottom, and had that framed for him after he pleaded with me to get it for him. I highly recommend a visit to the museum to see the ship's bell from the Fitzgerald, salvaged respectfully with the permission of the family members of the lost crewmen, on tasteful display. It's a beautiful and moving sight. There is also a lifeboat from the ship, found empty during the search for survivors, on view in Duluth, Minn. near the famous lifting bridge into their harbor.
We Wisconsonites have a direct tie to the ship, with six of the 29 missing crewmembers listing their home addresses in our state and one of them, Third Assistant Engineer Oliver Champeau, had a brother who lived in Marinette.
Perhaps it is a bit of this personal connection that causes me such disappointment that someone has taken video of a crewmember corpse lying next to the ship on the bottom, deteriorated but still recognizably human, and put that video online as well. I have not and will not look at it, but I view it as no better than grave robbing to do such a disrespectful thing. None of the crewmember's bodies was recovered after the sinking, and it would be appropriate to treat this whole site as a burial ground, since that is what it is. There are many bereaved family members who never got the comfort of a body recovery and dry land burial of their lost loved one.
At this time of year you often hear the haunting song about this tragedy by Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." I love the song of course, because of the subject matter, but there was always something about it I couldn't put words to that I found comforting. In a recent Janie Martin "Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious" I realized it was because if you listen to the melody without the words, it's actually like a soothing lullaby. You can feel yourself rocking like you are on a sailing ship or in a rocking chair, peaceful and serene despite the tragic nature of the song. I saw Lightfoot perform the song in person a few years ago, and while his voice is showing his age, the song was still incredibly powerful.
What this singer/songwriter did was a respectful tribute to the lost men. What the person who shared the human remains video did is disgusting.
You can find the song on line at Youtube, and there are thousands of comments on it, with so many other people sharing my exact sentiments about the ship and the song. There is something that grabs you by the heart in this story, and I highly recommend it. And as I always do on Nov. 10, I will be thinking about the ship, the men, the song, and the storm.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.