This week’s blog will hold a very special place in my memory for many years to come.
It’s crazy how events that occur many years before we are even born can have such an impact on the journey we will take through life. 46 years ago today (well before I was even born), my road to becoming a financial planner was beginning to be laid out.
On November 10th, 1975, one of the most famous shipwrecks in the history of the Great Lakes Shipping Industry took place.
This shipwreck would eventually rise to fame through Gordon Lightfoot’s hit song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, which tells the story of the shipping vessel that claimed the lives of 29 men, one of those being my grandfather. I have heard he really enjoyed fishing, so it was only appropriate to share this photo of him.
This time of year, it is common to hear the song played on the radio for those who reside in the Great Lakes area, and for local news channels to cover ceremonies paying tribute to the lives lost on the Fitzgerald.
While I never had the chance to meet my grandfather, it is still a somber time of the year for my family, and I often wonder what would be different had things played out differently that night.
It’s a chance for reflection, and a time I usually spend refocusing on what really matters, because we never really know when our last day may be upon us.
This blog will be a bit different from what you normally read here, there is much more history, more of a story, and I won’t share much about myself until the very end.
If you’re familiar with the story of the Fitzgerald, you can just skip on down to the end if you wish.
Otherwise, I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about the Edmund Fitzgerald in today’s blog. I’ll link to a few more resources at the end if you want to dig deeper into the legendary shipwreck.
“The Pride of the American Side”:
The Edmund Fitzgerald was at its time of construction, the largest ore freighter on the Great Lakes, measuring in at 729 feet long.
Launched in 1958 out of the port in Milwaukee, WI, the Fitzgerald’s career got off to a rocky start, with the christening of the vessel taking 3 attempts to break the champagne bottle.
This would be only a minor speed bump, and the Fitzgerald’s legendary status in Great Lakes shipping lore was quickly built as it began operation.
The Fitzgerald set multiple records (often beating its own) for the most cargo carried in a single shipping season and was the first ship to carry 1 million tons of Iron Ore through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, MI.
With these achievements, the Edmund Fitzgerald quickly became referred to by a smattering of nicknames. “The Pride of the American side”, referring to its stature as one of the greatest American shipping vessels. “The Mighty Fitz”, for its size and cargo-carrying capabilities.
And one that with time would become even more true, “The Titanic of the Great Lakes”. It was a truly impressive vessel for its time, and by November of 1975, it is estimated the Edmund Fitzgerald had covered more than a million miles on the Great Lakes, which equates to about 44 trips around the world.
The Fitzgerald was not without its problems though, having several incidents of collisions with other ships or shipping structures in harbor, lost anchors, or other instances of damage that seemed very “unlucky”.
These small bumps and bruises along the way were nothing the Fitzgerald couldn’t handle though. Repairs were made, and the ship continued to stay true to its reputation by breaking records set by freighters before its time.
With record-setting shipping seasons, many thought the Fitzgerald was an invincible vessel. We will come back to this later, and of course, you already know the end of the story.
The Phone Call:
Before we get to the events that unfolded on that fateful journey, with the Edmund Fitzgerald headed for one of its final shipping runs of the season, I want to share just exactly how my grandfather ended up on the ship that night.
Just as with anything in life, small events can at times lead to large consequences. For my family, a phone call would ultimately change the trajectory for my grandmother and her 5 children, and to this day those changes are still being passed down through our family tree.
To add a little bit of context, my grandfather Allen, had taken a job aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald in February of 1975. This would ultimately be just 9 months before he would find his final resting place in 530 feet of ice-cold Lake Superior water.
Prior to working on the Fitzgerald, he spent his working years managing a variety of stores throughout Wisconsin, before eventually starting his own Pizzeria. From the stories I have heard about this, the pizza shop was actually quite successful, and at one point he had purchased freezer trucks to ship them a few hours away to taverns and grocery stores.
A tough break with a flared-up back injury and the following surgery eventually forced him to close up shop when the bank wouldn’t extend a loan to help staff the restaurant during his absence.
This is the first point of his story where I see the threads of financial planning coming into my family history.
What if he would have had protections in place to provide income during this stretch? What if the banking system was so subjective at that time in history? What if there would have been more money in savings? Would he have even needed to take the job on the Fitzgerald?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, and never will.
While the world was a very different place back then, I use those questions to remind myself why I chose to do what I do for a living. We just don’t know what may happen, and we won’t ever fully know, but at least having a plan and a sense of what is possible can make all the difference.
Financial planning as we know it today did not exist back then. It’s not something I am bitter about, but the questions will probably always be something my family will ponder.
With the situation being what it was, when the phone rang on November 7th, 1975, my grandfather took the call and headed to Superior, WI where he would be boarding the Fitzgerald for the final time.
The Final Voyage:
On November 9th, 1975 the Fitzgerald left the port of Superior, WI with a load of iron ore weighing in at 26,116 tons. This was a full load for the ship, an aspect of that final voyage that has since become one theory for why it went down to the bottom of Lake Superior just one day later.
Shortly after leaving Superior, WI, the National Weather Service had issued gale warnings for the area of Lake Superior the Edmund Fitzgerald was going to be traveling through on its voyage to Detroit, MI.
This warning led the Fitzgerald and the other vessel sailing from Superior that day, the Arthur M Anderson, to change their plotted course on their journey to the Soo Locks at the opposite end of Lake Superior.
Just as so many of us do, we work with the best information we have at a given moment. This, according to many weather experts, was a fatal decision for the Fitzgerald.
It isn’t that they made the wrong choice, the technology available was simply primitive compared to the weather technology we have access to today. You don’t know what you don’t know. When we have information to make a clear, informed decision, we typically will make it with no second thought.
The logic used to make the decision to go north and cut over to the North Shore of Lake Superior was simply to avoid the sweeping winds across the open waters of Lake Superior. The forecast as it was able to be read at the time, showed the winds would come from the Northeast.
The simple science you need to understand in this scenario is, the more open water the wind travels across before it reaches the ship’s location, the bigger the waves. Going north and hugging the Northeast corner of Lake Superior would reduce the distance of open water between the land and the Fitzgerald, thus reducing the waves and wind the ship would face.
At that time, the models weren’t complex enough, nor was radar clear enough to accurately depict where the most severe patterns of weather were occurring. They simply appeared as white blotches on a screen.
The models were wrong, and instead, the wind came from the Northwest corner of the lake, and now the distance between the Fitzgerald and the land breaking the wind, was nearly at its theoretical maximum.
“We’re holding our own”:
As the journey and the day of November 10th continued to play out, the Fitzgerald found itself in the worst possible position, in what is still to this day one of the worst recorded storms on Lake Superior.
From the data readings that live on from both weather observation stations onshore, and from the Captain of the Arthur M Anderson, there were recorded readings of sustained wind speeds between 50-60 mph, with gusts varying between 80-100mph.
You can see from this radar image (courtesy of NOAA and the University of Wisconsin) the swirling effect of the wind similar to what you would see in a hurricane weather pattern. This radar image is actually from a storm that occurred on November 11th, 1998, but is nearly identical to the system that traveled over the Great Lakes exactly 33 years prior.
The weather was so bad, it actually ended up blowing a woman in Buffalo, NY off of her second-story balcony, and killing her just a day after the Fitzgerald sank as the storm system moved east.
The wind, however, was just one of the issues for the Fitzgerald. This amount of wind, now blowing over a large distance of open water, was creating waves which were consistently measured by other ships in the 15-25ft range, with swells and one-off waves reaching between 30-35ft high.
Around 6pm ET on November 10th, Captain McSorley of the Edmund Fitzgerald radios another ship captain saying “I have a bad list, lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”
It doesn’t matter how big of a boat you have, how well prepared you are, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it through a storm you’ve never been through before.
The Arthur M Anderson was approximately 10 miles behind the Fitzgerald at this point, and in near blizzard conditions, visibility prevented the two ships from being able to remain in constant sight of each other.
A short while later, the Anderson again radioed the Fitzgerald to check-in.
“Oh, and by the way, how are you making out with your problems?” the Anderson crew radios.
“We’re holding our own”, the Fitzgerald replies.
According to the Captain of the Anderson, a snow squall kicks up and sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s lights is lost.
Going back to the radar systems, the snow was so dense, you actually couldn’t see any ships on the radar, everything was just a giant blob of white.
There was no GPS, no high fidelity radar screen to see an outline of the ship. Just as if they were looking out their windows, all they could see was a thick, white blanket of snow.
Approximately 20 minutes later, the snow ends, visibility is reported to be the best it has been all day, and the Fitzgerald is nowhere to be found. There’s nothing on radar, even the blob of snow that was once there is nowhere to be seen.
How on earth do you lose sight of a 729-foot boat, in the middle of a giant lake with nothing obstructing your view no less?
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald:
Throughout the night, the Anderson searches for signs of the Fitzgerald. Other ships and the Coast Guard also joined in the efforts, but to no avail.
The reports of the missing ship began to ring into the major cities and were broadcast through local television stations.
I’ve heard the stories of this moment from a few of my relatives and cannot even begin to imagine what must have been going through the minds of my mom, my grandmother, and my aunts and uncle as the unthinkable was being displayed on their television.
Over the next few days, the search would continue, but all that was found was the twisted metal of a couple of lifeboats.
The unthinkable had happened. The once “Mighty” Edmund Fitzgerald had found its final resting place at the bottom of Lake Superior, just 17 miles from reaching safety in Whitefish Bay.
Over the next few days, the U.S. Navy would conduct aerial sonar scans of the area in which the Fitzgerald was lost, revealing the ship broke in two on its way to the bottom.
This has in many ways made finding closure on the shipwreck nearly impossible, since only half of the bottom portion of the ship can be viewed by divers, and a large portion of the hull was torn apart where the ship split in two.
In combination with the sudden disappearance with no distress calls being made, no visual sighting of the sinking, and the ship being well submerged into the murky bottom of Lake Superior, the final moments are a complete mystery.
Theories have come and gone in terms of popularity, and have come back again as time goes on and people continue to wonder what happened that November night.
Loose hatches on the cargo hold, scraping its bottom on Six Fathom Shoal, structural failure from its cutting edge design at the time of its creation, rogue waves, and just simple bad weather are the commonly debated choices for cause of the disaster.
As time went on, explorations to the ship were made by divers and submarines, with haunting images of a nearly perfectly preserved ship resting at the bottom of the icy cold Lake Superior water. None of these efforts produced enough data or evidence to make a definitive statement on what really happened.
I personally don’t think we will ever know what really happened, but my belief is probably the weather, and maybe some slight help from one of the other working theories.
“All that remains are the faces and the names…”:
For those of you who are familiar with the Fitzgerald, you’ll quickly realize this section’s title is an excerpt from Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
The song does a great job of encapsulating the mystery surrounding the sinking of the Fitzgerald, and added to the historical significance of the shipwreck that took place 46 years ago today.
Upon its release in November 1976, it even made its way up to the Billboard Hot 100 List #2 spot and remained there for two weeks.
The line used for this section ends with “of the wives and the sons and the daughters”, with those being my grandmother, mother, and her siblings.
While it is far from the most enjoyable day for my family, it is neat to know my grandfather’s final moments will remain preserved in this song forever, with Lightfoot including a couple of lines about when “the old cook came on deck sayin’ ‘Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya’”.
You can give Gordon’s song a listen here: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The truth is though, it wasn’t just the faces and the names that were left.
Finding the message in the mess:
As I grew up and began to understand the long-term, deep-rooted impacts this tragedy started to have on my family, I began to understand more about what occurred after the passing of my grandfather.
There was ultimately a settlement between the shipping company and the families of those lost on the Fitzgerald, with my grandmother sharing they received a couple hundred thousand dollars (she is still trying to find the documents) and all she could hope to do was pay for a house that they could live in.
From what I have been told by my mom, my aunts, and uncle, they received somewhere between $10k-$20k apiece. This money was all locked up in a savings account until they each reached age 18.
I have heard variations of the same statement from each of them throughout my life, but it has always been something along the lines of “I wish I would have just saved that money, but I didn’t. I blew it on x, y, or z.”
For some context, the bank accounts back then were paying upwards of 10% interest, my mom seems to believe 13% was the actual rate back then. As a financial planner, I can easily understand why they feel the regret they do, that was a tremendous opportunity.
The truth is though, the decision to spend the money wasn’t one that made sense on paper. There is no way to quantify exactly what they must have felt in those years immediately following his death, it is REALLY HARD to make good decisions when we are experiencing emotions.
These conversations, along with the “what if” questions surrounding the financial preparedness that could have possibly prevented my grandfather from having to take that call, or what could have been in place to make life easier after his passing, are all pieces of my story, and why I chose to be a financial planner.
I am blessed to be able to carry this piece of my family history along with me and know the job I do for others is to help be the guiding light in the flurry of decisions that life throws at us.
I’ll write more one day about my money story and this will certainly be a portion of it, but I want to end this blog post by sharing the same line about when the Edmund Fitzgerald made the call to go north, and potentially sealed its own fate with that decision.
Sometimes, we make the best decision we can in a given moment. There were a lot of moving pieces in both the decision the Fitzgerald made and those financial decisions my relatives made when they had the money from his passing.
Neither was wrong at the time the events occurred. They each had perfectly valid reasons for why they made the decisions they did. Emotional money decisions aren’t usually the greatest, but we can’t live in regret when the fog clears and it all seems so simple years after the fact.
Emotions are a part of every decision we make in life, financial or otherwise, and that shouldn’t be shamed by the thought of what could have been done instead.
If you’re reading this and feel some of those prior financial decisions weighing on your mind, give yourself the permission to let go and to instead focus on what you can do today.
All we can do when we get caught up in a financial storm is to try again or instead have someone who will be watching the radar as we sail along in our financial journeys.
Your fate doesn’t have to be that of the Edmund Fitzgerald. You can get a second try.
For those of you who have made it through this week’s lengthy blog, thank you so much for letting me share the story of my grandfather, my family, and give you a peek into what makes me so excited to come work for my clients each day.
I keep my grandfather’s cross pendant next to my keyboard as a reminder of my responsibility to give my best each and every day because we just don’t know when it will be our last.
I don’t know why he chose to leave it in his work locker the day he boarded the Fitzgerald for the final time, but it sure is nice to have something of his to hold onto during the days “We’re holding our own”.
Rest in Peace, Grandpa Allen.
If you’d like to learn more about the Fitzgerald or enjoy the delicious Porter beer that was made to pay tribute to the ill-fated freighter, feel free to visit the links below:
- The Storm That Sank the Edmund Fitzgerald via Wisconsin Public Television: Take a trip back in time and watch as weather expert Steve Ackerman, who was a student at UW-Madison during the events that sank the Fitzgerald, walks you through the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. I greatly enjoyed this video and appreciated the combination of the ship, the storm, and the song.
Watch here: https://youtu.be/NLUzyNuMqTM
- The Edmund Fitzgerald Exploration: Join videographer and historian Ric Mixter as he takes you through the history of “The Mighty Fitz”. Ric shares his studies and does a wonderful job of sharing some deep history of the Fitzgerald, from its conception and construction, all the way through the exploration of its watery grave.
Watch here: https://youtu.be/CH5936AVGq4
- The beer is here! Grab a 6-Pack of Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s Edmund Fitzgerald Porter:
Until next time,