Five Things the Edmund Fitzgerald Song Actually Got Wrong
Each year in Michigan, we hear the Gordon Lightfoot song about the gales of November and the tragic shipwreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. It's not 100% true.
If you're from Michigan, you know the legend that "lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee." Each November, we're reminded of the fierce power of the Great Lakes. The tragic tale of the twenty-nine sailors lost when the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior has been burned into our memory thanks to the Gordon Lightfoot song.
This songwriter was also a sailor. Gordon Lightfoot had a 39' sailing vessel named (naturally) Sundown. Like all boaters, he was soon trading up and bought a 45-footer dubbed Golden Goose. Lightfoot wanted to get the facts right in the case of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, but the words weren't fitting togeter. Long-time producer and friend Lenny Waronker advised him to "just tell a story." So, he took a little artistic license to polish off the epic ode.
What things are not historically accurate about the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"?
There are two inaccuracies here. The ship was not "coming back from some mill in Wisconsin," nor was she "fully loaded for Cleveland." The S.S. Edmund Fitzgeralddisembarked from Superior, Wisconsin on November 9, 1975, steaming toward a steel mill on Zug Island near Detroit. Also, Wikipedia reminds us that, "lake freighters that carry bulk iron ore are loaded at ore docks, not mills."
The Last Broadcast
Captain McSorley bravely reported in his last radio transmission that he and the crew were "holding our own." In the Lightfoot retelling, the skipper reports of water comin' in after the cook came on deck saying, "Fellas, it's been good to know ya."
Parishoners of Mariner's Church felt they were slighted by the storytelling. Lightfoot inaccurately calls it the "maritime sailors' cathedral," not Mariner's Church, and then adds insult to injury by depicting the space as a "musty old hall." He has since changed the line to "in a rustic old hall..." in live performances.
Mariner's Church is still standing and has a special memorial service each year not only for the twenty-nine crewmen of the Edmund Fitzgerald but for all who have given up their lives to the Great Lakes. Find out how to watch the service on YouTube here.