An Opportunity to Remember: The Loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Since I’ve been writing a novel that takes place in the shadow of Lake Superior in the years between 1975 and 1995, it seems only fitting that I commemorate the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald today, the 39th anniversary of the ship’s loss. This is a solemn day for Michiganders, as we remember the many who have lost their lives on our lakes throughout the years.

If you’re in the Detroit area, the Detroit Free Press has announced a commemoration for tonight:

The evening’s activities are to begin with a lantern vigil at the Edmund Fitzgerald anchor, followed by a performance by Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock and an honor guard escort of a memorial wreath to the Detroit River for receipt by a flotilla of Great Lakes vessels.

Edmund Fitzgerald
Photo from Detroit Free Press, November 10, 2014
My novel is not about the Fitz itself, but not coincidentally the action begins on the same night the great ship disappeared from radar. As a Michigan resident and someone who has seen many of these giant ships traverse the Great Lakes, it’s hard for me not to be affected by the thought that such a large ship could sink below the water so easily. That idea haunts me–and surfaces in interesting ways in my writing.
Surprisingly, even though this was considered one of the worst maritime losses in Great Lakes history, few people remember much about the Edmund Fitzgerald these days. No such disasters have occurred on the Great Lakes in my lifetime, so many people find it hard to believe that the waters of the Great Lakes could have produced enough force to take the lives of somewhere between 25 and 30,000 people over recorded history.
Tragedies like the loss of the S.S. Fitzgerald affect the collective memory of a region (thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 ballad, maybe even a country in the case of the Fitz) but are sadly often lost to time. After a generation or two, few remember the events of that night that seemed so terrible except for family members and history buffs.
Perhaps that fading from our collective memories is the greatest loss of all. Perhaps that is why I write, bringing the events and people of the past into sharper focus for readers. Today, I will remember the men who died on November 10, 1975, in the icy waters of Lake Superior–and the many others who have also perished in service on the Great Lakes.
What moments in your regional history do you consider important to commemorate? What will you keep alive through your writing?
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