When the Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in 1958 it was the largest freighter on the Great Lakes at 729 feet in length and 75 feet wide — barely able to fit through the Soo Locks connecting Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.
And, with a maximum hauling capacity of 26,000 tons, the Fitz continually set new records for tonnage hauled during a shipping season.
It took the Fitz about five days to complete the round trip and deliver her load of iron ore from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit or Toledo. She made about 47 trips every shipping season.
During her 16 plus seasons, the Fitzgerald had made an estimated 748 round trips before leaving with her last load on November 9, 1975.
Thomas Walton had a family connection to Great Lakes shipping. His father and uncle both worked for Oglebay Norton and its Columbia Transportation Fleet, he signed on as a porter on the Edmund Fitzgerald for the summer of 1963.
Those connections to the Fitzgerald and Great Lakes shipping paired with his later career with The Blade led to an interest in the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Archbold Rotarians were entertained by his stories of his summer on the Fitzgerald. From serving client passengers that Oglebay Norton invited to ride and dine in luxury in one the Fitz’ two passenger cabins to stories of a captain who used the ship’s PA system to tell tourists at the Soo Locks about the Edmund Fitzgerald and played classical music over the ship’s PA system as she passed by Detroit.
Walton told stories that made the Fitzgerald and its crew more than the tragic story told by Gordon Lightfoot in his ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Forty-eight years after its sinking during an intense storm that created 35 foot waves on Lake Superior, there is still no definitive answer about what caused the ship with its crew of 29 sailors to break apart and come to rest in 530 feet of water. The Fitz was a little more than one day into its final trip and less than one hour from a safe harbor at Whitefish Bay.
So, based on what he knew about the Fitzgerald and what he has read, what does Walton believed caused the ship to sink in a matter of minutes without even sending a distress call?
He explained that the taconite ore pellets the Fitzgerald carried from the Minnesota Iron Range would roll like marbles in the cargo holds during heavy wave action and discounted crew error as a contributor to the wreck.
Particularly during the end of the shipping season when storms were likely, he didn’t believe crew members would have failed to completely secure all of the cargo deck hold doors.
Likewise, even though the ship had been hugging the Ontario shoreline to avoid the worst of the waves, he didn’t believe an experienced captain would continually scrap bottom allowing water to further weigh down the ship.
Instead, he suggested two large waves that another freighter traveling behind the Fitzgerald had reported lifted the back of the fully loaded freighter up as the ore pellets shifted weight to the front with the ship’s engines pushing the stern below the surface and ultimately to the bottom of the lake.
Photos that have since been taken show the front section largely intact resting on the bottom with the back section nearby, but turned over. And the cargo section visible, but nearly covered by lake sediment.
Walton’s Uncle Grant (58 years old) was likely working in the engine room when the ship went down. Archbold Rotarian Skip Leupp’s second cousin William Spengler, a 59 year old Toledo resident, was planning to retire after the Fritzgerald completed its last trip of the shipping season. Walton’s father retired at age 55 after the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.