Williamsburg Hill

Williamsburg Hill

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

SS Edmund Fitzgerald 
A memorable and surreal moment of my life came in November of 1994, several months after we moved to Detroit, Michigan.  My husband had taken a job downtown and we lived in the suburban area of Grosse Pointe; the most convenient access to and from the city for us came via Jefferson Avenue.
Driving this route provided a startling contrast in scenery.  Beauty and blight.  Manicured lawns and vacant, overgrown lots.  Occupied, historic buildings and abandoned, vandalized ruins.  One structure that consistently caught my attention was a particular church; in fact, whenever we were within a couple of blocks, I found myself looking for it as if making sure it hadn’t disappeared. It never did.  The building stood at the corner of the entrance for border crossing to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.  Perhaps that was why it was more noticeable to me at the time.  We’d often take the tunnel, crossing under the Detroit River to simply go to dinner or to do things in Windsor, Canada.  Its location made it a building that couldn’t be missed.  But I like to think learning the history of the building is what appealed to me, how it stood stoically, and had withstood what too many other historical buildings in the city of Detroit had been unable to do.  It had survived. 
So it was one Sunday in November that we decided to attend a service at this church.  The Mariners’ Church of Detroit held a surprise for us.  Inadvertently, the day we chose to attend was the very day its bell “chimed till it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”.  It isn’t an exaggeration when I say the gooseflesh ran down my arms once I realized what was happening.  I remember glancing at my husband, and thinking, “No way!” and thanking whatever force that had guided us there for that annual event.  Not only did they ring the bell, but each crew member’s name was read, too.  Then the choir performed, singing that famous Gordon Lightfoot song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which notably mentions the church in the lyrics: 

The Legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well-seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T'was the witch of November come stealin'
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing'
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'
Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya
At 7 pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it's been good t'know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And far below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors' cathedral
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call 'Gitche Gumee'
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

Lightfoot released the song in 1976 as a tribute to the twenty-nine men who lost their lives in the shipwreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior, November 10, 1975.  Launched in 1958, the freighter was considered the largest carrier on the Great Lakes at the time, but was no match for hurricane-force winds and thirty-five foot waves seventeen years later.  On November 9, 1975, the ship departed Superior, Wisconsin with 26,000 tons of ore bound for Detroit (not Cleveland, as in Lightfoot's lyrics).  That evening the National Weather Service issued a gale warning for Lake Superior, upgrading it to a storm warning at 2:00 a.m. the next morning.  The captain of the Mighty Fitz made radio contact that afternoon:  "I have a bad list, lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I've ever seen."  At 7:00 p.m., the freighter, SS Arthur M Anderson made contact with the doomed ship and had her on radar, but approximately twenty minutes later she disappeared.  Every crew member perished and no bodies were recovered.  An excellent website that provides bios of these brave men is www.ssedmundfitzgerald.org.
Creative and artistic liberties were taken by the singer/songwriter with respect to the song, such as the name of the church, mentioning what the cook said when there was no way of knowing this, saying the ship was bound for a city it wasn't.  All of this was to make a wonderful song that works.  Lightfoot eventually changed some lyrics for performances, including the reference to a "musty old hall" when one of the parishioners of the Mariners' Church complained to him that the hall wasn't musty.  I would agree with this statement.  It is now performed with the lyrics "rustic old hall" instead, although I think "classic" is a better adjective.  
The Mariners' Church of Detroit 
The Mariners' Church of Detroit, built in 1849, was established according to the will of Julia Anderson in 1842, who saw it as a Maritime Mission for maritime travelers on the Great Lakes.  Today it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, considered an Independent Church adhering to Anglican traditions, and was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.  It began the annual remembrances of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 that continued until 2006.  It then extended the event by remembering all of the lives lost on the Great Lakes.  Today the church holds a Blessing of the Fleet every March for those going to sea, and a Great Lakes Memorial Service every November for those who have lost their lives at sea (this also includes military personnel who have given the ultimate sacrifice in service).
That day twenty-two years ago was pretty special to me.  It was one that came with such surprise because of the obvious unplanned timing, but more so because I'm not sure I ever realized the church in that song actually existed.  I think I assumed it was simply part of a special homage from a great songwriter who created one of the most memorable songs of my youth, one that has withstood time.  In fact, the song's longevity is much like the church that's mentioned in it.
November 10, 2016.  Forty-one years later.  For more information on the wonderful church that hasn't forgotten, continues to remember, and stands proudly, visit www.marinerschurchofdetroit.org.