Since we honored the Edmund Fitzgerald this week, it seems fitting to have a performance of the song that made the shipwreck famous to millions. So here is a Gordon Lightfoot performance in Reno, Nevada in 1990. Enjoy and have a nice Sunday everyone.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior on 10 Nov 1975 taking with her a crew of 29. The ship was launched in 1958 and was owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. As a freighter, the ship primarily carried taconite iron ore to iron works in various Great Lake ports. The ship set records for hauling ore during its career.
On 9 Nov 1975, the Fitzgerald under the command of Captain Ernest McSorley, embarked on her final voyage of the season fron Superior, Wisconsin to a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan. She met up with another freighter, SS Arthur Anderson, while enroute. The next day a severe winter storm hit with near hurricane force winds and waves that reached 35 feet in height. Sometime around or after 7:11 p.m., the Fitzgerald sank in Canadian waters approximately 17 miles from Whitefish Bay near the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. While McSorley had reported difficulty earlier, his last message was “We are holding our own.”
The cause of the sinking has stirred debate and controversy with competing theories and books on the issue. The various theories are:
(1) Inaccurate weather forecasting. The National Weather Service forecast had said the storm would pass south of Lake Superior but instead it tracked across the eastern part, exactly where the Edmund Fitzgerald and Arthur Anderson were. So they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(2) Inaccurate navigational charts. The Canadian charts in use came from 1916 and 1919 surveys and did not include more updated information that Six Fathom Shoal was about 1 mile further east than shown.
(3)No Watertight Bulkheads
The ship did not have watertight bulkheads and more like barges rather than freighters. So a serious puncture could sink a vessel like Fitzgerald while ships that had such bulkheads, even if seriously damaged, had a better chance of survival.
(4)Lack of Sounding and Other Safety Instruments Fitzgerald lacked the ability to monitor water depth using a fathometer( a device that uses echo sounding to determine water depth). The only way the Fitz could do soundings was using a hand line and counting the knots to measure water depth. Nor was there any way to monitor if water was in the hold or not (some was always present reports suggest)unless it got high enough to be noticed by the crew. However on that night, the severity of the storm made it difficult to access the hatches from the spar deck. And if the hold was full of bulk cargo, it was virtually impossible to pump out the water.
(5)Increased Cargo Loads Meant Ship Was Sitting Lower In Water
The load line had been changed in 1969, 1971, and 1973 with U.S. Coast Guard approval. This resulted in Fitzgerald’s deck being only 11.5 feet above the water when she faced massive 35 foot waves on that day. She was carrying 4,0000 more tons than what she was designed to carry. Which meant the buoyancy of the ship was an issue who fully loaded resulting in reports the ship was sluggish, slower, and reduced recovery time.
The US National Transportation and Safety Board believes that prior groundings caused undetected damage that led to major structural failure during the storm. Since most Great Lakes vessels were only inspected in drydock once every five years, such damage would not have been easily detected otherwise. Concerns have also been raised that Captain McSorley did not keep up with routine maintenance. Photographic evidence indicates the hull was patched in places and the failure of the U.S. Coast Guard to take corrective action is also an issue considering that various things were not properly maintained.
Captain McSorley rarely pulled his ship into a safer harbor to ride out a storm. Nor did he heed a warning from the U.S. Coast Guard issued at 3:35 p.m. to seek safe anchorage. Possible pressure from ship owners to deliver cargo on time is considered a factor for some captains like McSorley to ride out storms rather seek safe anchorages. The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board concluded that complacency is a major factor in what happened to Fitzgerald and generally a problem for Great Lakes shipping. Critics point out the Coast Guard failed in its own tasks of properly requiring those repairs and lacked the means to rescue ships in distress on the Great Lakes.
The wreck was found on 14 Nov 1975 using technology to find sunken submarines. The U.S. Navy dived to the wreck in 1976 using an unmanned submersible. The wreck was found to be in two pieces with taconite pellets in the debris field. Jacques Cousteau dived to it in 1980 and speculated it had broken up on the surface. A three day survey dive in 1989 organized by the Michigan Sea Grant Program was done to record the wreck for use in museum educational programs. It drew no conclusions as to the cause of the sinking. Canadian explorer Joseph MacInnis led six publicly funded dives over three days in 1994 to take pictures. Also that year sport diver Fred Shannon and his Deepquest Ltd did a serious of dives and took more than 42 hours of underwater video. Shannon discovered when studying the navigational charts that the international boundary had changed three times. GPS coordinates showed the wreck was actually in Canadian waters because of an error in the boundary line shown on official lake charts. MacInnis went back to the wreck in 1995 to salvage the bell and it was financed by the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. A replica bell and a beer can were put on Fitzgerald. Scuba divers Terrence Tysall and Mike Zee used trimix gas to dive to the wreck and set records for deepest scuba dive on Great Lakes. They were the only divers to get to the wreck without a submersible.
The wreck is now restricted under the Ontario Heritage Act and has been further amended that a license is required for dives, submersibles, side scan sonar surveys and even using underwater cameras in the designated protected area. And they added a steep fine of 1 million Canadian dollars for violating the act.
Fitzgerald was valued at $24 million. Two widows filed suit seeking $1.5 million from the owners and operators of the ship. The owners filed to reduce to limit their liability. However the claims never went to trial as the company paid compensation to the surviving families who signed confidentiality agreements. It is believed the owners and operator wanted to avoid a court case where McSorley was found negligent as well as the operator and owner. Changes to Great Lakes shipping did occur such as requiring fathometers in ships above a certain tonnage, survival suits, locating systems for ships (LORAN originally now GPS), emergency beacons, better wave predictions, and annual inspections of ships in the fall to inspect hatch and vent closures.
Annual memorials take place though the one made famous by Gordon Lightfoot, the Mariners Church in Detroit, now honors all who perished on the Great Lakes.
Susan Q. Stranahan writing for Smithsonian Online gives an excellent account of the tragic events of the SS Eastland, which rolled over while docked in the Chicago River in 1915. The death toll was appalling and most of those who died were under 25. It was a sensational story in the papers yet it faded. The Titanic, which sank in 1912 is still remembered today while Eastland is just barely remembered. So what happened?
Titanic became a symbol for the age she was built in, part Gilded Age, industrial, and the last embers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The ship became iconic and achieved immortality, something rare in historical memory. James Cameron’s movie cemented that in recent years. And the high money fetched in authentic Titanic memorabilia shows how strong that memory still is. Mention things like the Children’s Blizzard (1888), the General Slocum disaster(1904) or the 1918 flu pandemic and you get stares. Mention things like the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and that still has historical memory especially for people in Northern California that still live in its shadow.
One argument for the loss of Eastland memory is that there was no one rich or famous aboard. Possible but I do not think that is why it is forgotten. It is forgotten perhaps because the tragedy never reached a certain level that ingrained itself like some disasters do. Why is it that an old Great Lakes freighter is remembered while other ships that sank in those cold waters not? A song by Gordon Lightfoot called Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. While some knew about the tragedy in the news, it was this song that put it into a national consciousness. Titanic had books, songs, plays and movies. The Eastland has a few books, historical societies, newspaper records, and testimony at hearings. Yet it got no national memory because while tragic it simply did not stick into the historical memory. We may never know exactly why. And that is what historians and historical societies are for, to make sure such things do not pass into the realm of forgotten.
And even if there was someone famous or rich on Eastland that day, that is no guarantee it would be remembered beyond a certain radius. Historical memory can be shocking in its forgetfulness. All we can do is try to shine a light on what happened so that people do not forget what has happened before.
On 22 September 1914, three British Royal Navy Cruisers–HMS Cressy, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue–were sunk while on patrol near Ostend. One German U-boat, the U9, sank all three. From all three ships 837 men were rescued and 1,459 men perished ( 62 officers and 1,397 enlisted men). There was a huge outcry at the time at the large loss of life caused by a U-boat, which up till then were not taken that seriously as a threat. It hurt the reputation of the Royal Navy and forced them to implement stringent anti-submarine tactics after that. The German U-boat commander was given a hero’s welcome and the submarines would prove to be a threat to British shipping. In 1954 the British government sold salvage rights to a German company which eventually ended up being acquired by a Dutch company. And that company has been salvaging metal from the ships since 2011.
This has caused in uproar in Chatham, where a large number of those who perished came from. Now there is demand from local leaders for the government to declare the wreck site as a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The argument is that if Titanic is a grave, then the remains of three Royal Navy cruisers ought to be as well. So far there is no reaction from the British government and the company that has the salvage rights would likely fight any attempt to interfere with their ability to salvage.
1.Titanic Menu Up For Auction BBC is reporting that a menu from Titanic’s first class restaurant will be auctioned off on 18 October by Henry Aldridge & Son. The menu, stuffed inside a coat pocket, is expected to fetch £70,000($112,528). A deck plan used to help a survivor find the way to a lifeboat on Titanic will be auctioned off as well.
2. Ancient Wreck Dubbed Titanic of Ancient World Proving To Be Treasure Trove
The 2,000-year-old Antikythera shipwreck in Greece is the focus of a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) expedition reports LiveScience.com. The ship likely sank between 70 B.C. and 60 B.C while on its way from Asia Minor to Rome. It was found by sponge divers in 1900 and early efforts to retrieve valuables proved costly in human lives. Some of the earlier items brought up back then included bronze and marble statues of heroes and horses, jewelry, furniture, glassware and a a complex astronomical calculator called the Antikythera mechanism. Jacques Cousteau also dived to the sunken ship and brought up some amazing items as well. This most recent expedition from Sept. 15 to Oct. 7 also brought up some fascinating items as well. Also the dive allowed for the use of rebreathers to allow divers to spend more time down exploring the wreck. They also used high resolution 3D maps of the site that showed it much larger than previously thought. Another expedition is being planned for next year.
3. Premier Exhibitions Facing Stronger Criticism Over Bodies Exhibition
As noted in an earlier posting, human rights activists in Toronto is calling for the seizure of the human bodies on display claiming many of the Chinese included were imprisoned or killed by that government. The Toronto Sun reports that Choose Humanity spokesman Joel Chipkar says the cadavers on display (which include men, women and children)were executed for engaging in such acts as belonging to group such as Falun Gong. Premier Exhibitions has not issued a formal response to the allegation.
4. If You Have $10.9 Million This Former Straus Property Could Be Yours
The Straus inheritors wanted to live big in Red Bank, New Jersey. So they decided to build a huge estate on 29,000 square feet that would have included a 27-room chateau had the Great Depression not slowed down and ended construction. They did build some fine buildings based on 18th century Provence and imported nearly everything to make it look right. What could not be imported was made by French and Italian artisans who came over to do the job. It was sold in 1951 and the houses became part of a co-op. This being a very wealthy area though, it was not a commune but a very nice place for those with lots of money to live in a lovely estate and share common amenities like a pool (important on those hot summer days). Now the whole thing is up for sale. Just fork over $10.9 million and it is yours. Pool included.
1. I like the ABC show Castle. And like everyone was stunned at how last season ended. We are now two episodes into this season and this is what we learned:that Richard Castle has a very dark secret. And somehow that caught up with him just before the wedding. And he apparently, in conjunction with others to cover it up (possibly not by choice), staged the disappearance and likely used drugs of some kind to permanently loose those memories. Does anyone think the movie Total Recall is being done on us just with a Castle twist? Personally it would have been more likely had old enemies of his father had staged it. Hey, maybe they did for all we know. Not really liking this at all. One hopes down the road Kate does not wake up to find it is the day of the wedding and all that happened really was a dream.
2. Hells Kitchen continues its tradition of D list cooks who seemingly fall apart under the intense scrutiny of Chef Hell (Ramsay) and his assistants. It is becoming easier though to pick the ones that are clearly just there to cause problems in the group.
3. Someone needs to tell the folks over at Amazing Race we really do not care or need to know someone really had to go to the bathroom bad during the race. But we also found out in the first episode that some people really are quite stupid. One of the real estate gals actually said the sun rises in the west and settles in the east. The stunned looks on the two who heard her say that was funny. Needless to say the real estate gals were eliminated. Hopefully by now they have figured where the sun actually rises and sets. And it has been doing it exactly that way for a very long, long time.
Marian Cheatham, writing for Chicago Now, recently opined that regulations enacted after Titanic had a consqeuence. The consequence was that ships that were not designed for the extra weight or had stability issues would have problems. The SS Eastland was one such ship. Now obviously no one wanted this to happen so the actual fault does not rest on the regulations but on the shipowners and whether they were negligent or not.
Titanic Responsible For Eastland Capsizing?(3 Aug 2014,Chicago Now) The Eastland was originally designed and built for 6 lifeboats. The additional weight added in compliance with the Seaman’s Act made an already unstable vessel even more top-heavy and inevitably, deadly. On the day of her capsizing in July 1915, she had a total of 11 lifeboats, 37 rafts, and a workboat. Without a doubt, the fallout from the Titanic impacted the Eastland, but the additional weight of this life-saving equipment was not the only cause of that fatal capsizing. Several other factors came into play. As I outlined in the Author’s Notes for my novel, Eastland, the disaster occurred because a series of events unfolded in catastrophic succession. The Seaman’s Act was only the first event in that series.
1. Bideford Blacksmith Is A Walking Titanic ‘Encyclopaedia‘(2 Aug 2014,North Devon Journal) A former shipbuilder is creating “fireworks” with iron in a workshop at Bideford’s Pannier Market. Michael Burton, 56, is part of a long line of his family to work in the shipbuilding industry and has worked in some of the major shipyards in the UK and now runs his own blacksmithing business. Before Michael took up residency at the Pannier Market, he worked at Appledore Shipyard for years as well as Belfast Harbour – where the Titanic was built. The self-professed Titanic “encyclopaedia” has always had a passion for the ill-fated ship and has even hand-crafted 3ft models of the vessel. Through research, he also found out one of his relatives, John Edward Burton, worked in the furnaces and died on the ship.
2. Long-Lost Anchor May Soon Be Identified(28 Jul 2014,Discovery.com) After decades, possibly centuries, at the bottom of the sea — and a 2,200-mile-long (3,540 kilometers) road trip wrapped in damp blankets in the back of a pickup truck — a barnacle-crusted anchor arrived in Texas this week for a major cleaning.The men who raised the object from the floor of the Puget Sound hope conservation efforts will uncover proof that they found the long-lost anchor from a historic British voyage around the world.
3. Hall Things Considered: God’s Faithfulness Is Our Anchor(30 Jul 2014,TheTimes Tribune)A review of Titanic Pigeon Forge. Once you enter the museum, you are given a passenger boarding ticket. The ticket has the name of an actual Titanic passenger telling you which class they were traveling. At the end of the museum, you enter the Titanic Memorial Room to find out if your passenger survived. But before you get to the end, you get to take part in a two-hour self-guided tour designed to give guests the sensation of being an original passenger on the Titanic’s 1912 maiden voyage. There are about 20 different galleries of actual items salvaged from the ship after it sank. The items included old photos, letters, clothing, silverware and many other personal effects from the folks who were aboard the Titanic. You also get the chance to place your hand in a little pool of water that was the same temperature as the water the ship sank in.
4. “The Bravest Man I Ever Met” Father Brown In World War I(29 Jul 2014,IrishCentral.com) Ministering to soldiers in the thick of the action, Father Browne was wounded five times and badly gassed. “Father Browne’s First World War” gives an account of his wartime experiences and contains 100 photos from his remarkable collection. There are also extracts from his letters home describing his experiences, and from his messages to the families of the fallen. The book includes a moving account of the time he spent working alongside fellow chaplain, Fr Willie Doyle, killed by a shell.
5. Slumbering Off Louisiana Coast: Sunken Nazi Sub(16 Jul 2014,Fox News) Many never knew how close German U-boats came to US soil during World War II, but new high-def footage reveals several wrecks on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Robert Ballard, known for discovering the Titanic, is now mapping some of these wrecks, including the SS Robert E. Lee that was torpedoed by the German U-166 in 1942 and sank 45 miles off the coast of Louisiana. While most of the Lee’s 286 passengers survived, the U-166 was hit by the Lee’s Navy escort and sank less than a mile away with all 52 still aboard; it now slumbers as a protected war grave.
On this date in 1915, the passenger ship SS Eastland rolled over while docked in the Chicago River. 844 passengers and crew were killed making it the largest loss of life from a shipwreck on the Great Lakes.
The SS Eastland was owned by St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and was launched in May 1903 . Problems were discovered from the start. Design flaws made it top heavy and its center of gravity was too high. When lots of passengers congregated on top deck, the ship would list. While some modifications fixed issues, there were still listing problems. SS Eastland also achieved notoriety in August 1903 for a mutiny by the ships firemen. On 14 Aug, while traversing between Chicago to South Haven, Michigan some fireman refused to stoke the fires because they had not received their potatoes. The captain ordered the men arrested. Two firemen who did not participate in the mutiny had to stoke the fires until they docked. The six men were arrested by the police and later the captain was replaced.
On 24 Jul 1915 the Eastland and two other passenger steamers were chartered to take employees of Western Electric to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. For the workers, it was a major event since many did not take holidays. Boarding began at 0630 and by 0710, the ship had reached its capacity of 2,572. The ship was packed and passengers filled every possible place on the upper decks. The ship had already begun to list to port and the crew tried to balance the ship using the ballast tanks. That did not work. Numerous passengers passengers apparently rushed to the port side making it worse. At 0728, the ship lurched sharply to port and rolled over to rest on the river bottom twenty feet below the surface. Because so many were below decks to keep warm, they were trapped by the sudden rollover. Heavy furniture-pianos, bookcases, tables-crushed many inside.
The Kenosha responded immediately and came aside to allow those stranded on top to jump aboard. But for those trapped below, there was no rescue. The bodies were retrieved and taken to temporary morgues.
The president and three officers of St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company were indicted for manslaughter. The ship’s captain and engineer where charged with criminal carelessness as well. However during an extradition hearing (all six were in Michigan and had to be extradited to Illinois to stand trial) the federal judge believed there was not enough probable cause citing lack of evidence and refused to extradite. He further said the captain and engineer were merely doing their jobs.
Ironically because of the 1915 Seamen’s Act passed after Titanic’s demise, the additional weight of the lifeboats probably worsened the top-heavy issues of the ship.
A historical marker along the Chicago River marks the event. Plans are also underway to construct an outdoor exhibit where Eastland sank.
Eastland Goes Navy
The Eastland was raised and sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and commissioned USS Wilmette . She was reconfigured as a gun boat and primarily used for training. Her only action came after the war when she was tasked with sinking a captured German U-Boat in 1921. Most of her career after that was training naval reservists. In 1941, her training duty was altered to train naval armed crews on merchant ships. Her most prestigious task was to take President Roosevelt and others to Whitefish Bay to plan war strategies in 1943. She was decommissioned in 1945 and sold for scrap in 1946.
Today marks the anniversary of the tragic sinking of PS General Slocum on the East River in New York City. She was taking members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Church to a church picnic. It was supposed to be a wonderful outing for all and many children were aboard. Fire broke out, most likely in the Lamp Room, and then spread. Due to inadequate safety inspections, failure of Knickerbocker Steamship Company to maintain safety standards, and the ship’s captain, the safety equipment aboard was completely unusable. Ship hoses could not function due to age, most life preservers were so old they fell apart or were weighted inside, and lifeboats were inaccessible. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 passengers perished in the tragedy mostly from drowning. It was the single worst loss of life in New York City history until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Sadly many who died were children though sometimes parents or members of the extended family also perished. Some victims were never identified because there was no one living to do so. The funeral procession of the dead was witnessed by many and the small coffins caused many to cry. One notable incident was a man accompanied by his wife carrying a small coffin under his arms. He could not afford a funeral wagon and so was walking to the cemetery. Fortunately a man delivering flowers offered him a ride.
The subsequent investigation revealed the poor state of safety equipment on General Slocum. The company laid the blame on Captain Van Schaick and the government inspectors for failing in their duties (who were likely bribed). It would lead to reorganization of the government agency responsible and tighter accountability of ship owners to safety regulations. Today that function is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the United States has one the toughest maritime safety regulations in the world.
The Knickerbocker Steamship Company was fined and Captain Van Schaick would be imprisoned for several years. He was paroled in 1911 and in 1912 President Taft pardoned him. Many believed, although he was captain of General Slocum, the company was ultimately responsible for the tragedy. St. Mark’s Evangelical Church was part of the Little Germany community in New York. The loss brought many together to help the church and its members. However as people began to move away from the area, the Germans that had made up its base went with it. The church closed and is now a synagogue. A stone memorial to the victims of the General Slocum is at Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan. Today there are those that get together to remember this terrible event in New York City history. Sadly all the survivors have passed away, the last one in 2004.
The movie Manhattan Melodrama(1934), which stars a young Clark Gable, has as its opening moments the events of the General Slocum which sets in motion the lives of the two characters the movie depicts. Not a bad movie for its time and worth looking at if you have the opportunity.
A memorial plaque placed near the former church of St. Mark’s on the centennial of disaster states:
This is the site of the former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1857–1940) a mostly German immigrant parish. On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the church chartered the excursion steamer, GENERAL SLOCUM, to take the members on the 17th annual Sunday school picnic. The steamer sailed up the East River, with some 1400 passengers aboard, when it entered the infamous Hell Gate passage, caught fire and was beached and sank on North Brother Island. It is estimated 1200 people lost their lives, mostly woman and children, dying within yards of the Bronx shore.
The GENERAL SLOCUM had been certified by the U.S. Steam boat Inspection Service to safely carry 2500 passengers five weeks before the disaster. An investigation after the fire and sinking found the lifeboats were wired and glued with paint to the deck, life jackets fell apart with age, fire hoses burst under water pressure, and the crew never had a fire drill. Until the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001,the Slocum disaster had been the largest fire fatality in New York City’s history.
Dedicated Sunday, June 13, 2004, by the Steam Centennial Committee.
The Maritime Indistry Museum
SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY
I got a note asking what happened to RMS Carpathia, the Titanic rescue ship, after 1912.
RMS Carpathia was a Cunard line transoceanic passenger liner and primarily made runs between New York, Gibraltar, Genoa, Naples, Trieste, and Fiume. During World War I she retained doing commercial runs but did carry both Canadian and American troops to Europe.
On 17 Jul 1918, she was sunk by a German U-Boat in the Celtic Sea. Three torpedoes were fired and one hit the port side and the other the engine room killing two firemen and three trimmers. A third torpedo hit as they were lowering lifeboats. All 57 passengers and 218 surviving crew members got off in lifeboats. The German submarine did surface and threatened the lifeboats. Fortunately the HMS Snowdrop arrived on scene and drove it away and rescued the survivors.
The wreck was thought located in 1999 by team headed up by Graham Jessop on an expedition sponsored by National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). However that proved to be the liner Isis that sank in 1936. Noted author Clive Cussler announced in 2000 that his organization (NUMA-the fictional agency in many of his books that Dirk Pitt works for) had found the wreck at a depth of 500 feet and upright on the seabed. The wreck is now owned by Premier Exhibitions, the same group that also owns RMS Titanic, Inc which obtained salvage rights to Titanic. The company has recovered artifacts from the wreck for display in the Rescue Gallery in its Titanic:The Artifact Exhibition.