Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Lake it is Said Never Gives Up Her Dead

It's November again. The first whisps of snow are falling to the ground on occasion, and the wind is howling over the Big lakes, rolling the waters into massive frothing waves. The notorious November storms are upon us, whipping the Lake into a fury, crashing waves over the lighthouses and piers. It's November 10th, the anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster.

As I like to point out, the Edmund Fitzgerald was just one of thousands of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, many of them taking the crew down with them. Hard working men and women have been carrying freight on these Lakes for more than a century: iron, grain, iron ore, cars, railroad cars full of freight ferrying between Wisconsin to Michigan. It is the most the most efficient modes of freight by far, outstripping even trains by an order of magnitude.

And just as those unfamiliar to these lakes need to see them to understand how oceanlike they are, it's important to realize the graveyard at the bottom is enormous...the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum puts the loss of ships at over 6000 and the loss of lives at over 30,000.

There are few things that speak to the vastness and power of the Great Lakes than the thousands of shipwrecks at the bottom. Few things show the respect these lakes demand.

Old men just to the North of Muskegon, in the Ludington-Pentwater area still remember the horrible Armistice Day shipwrecks of 1940 when 57 men lost their lives. One old man recalled to me his memories of the day. The boyscouts had been called to help search for survivors and bodies, and he recalled, as a boy, pulling frozen bodies from the lake.

The anniversary for that is tomorrow.

"The most disastrous day in the history of Lake Michigan shipping was Armistice (now Veterans') Day, November 11, 1940. With seventy-five-mile-per-hour winds and twenty-foot waves, a raging storm destroyed three ships and claimed the lives of fifty-nine seamen. Two freighters sank with all hands lost, and a third, the Novadoc, ran aground with the loss of two crew members. Bodies washed ashore throughout the day. As night fell, a heavy snow storm arrived. Rescue efforts by the Coast Guard and local citizens continued for three days after the storm. Three Pentwater fishermen were later recognized by the local community and the Canadian government for their bravery in rescuing seventeen sailors from the Novadoc. "

Divers and researchers discover new shipwreck sites every year. Earlier this year an expedition with Eastern Michigan high school students discovered two ship wrecks.

The group discovered the wreck of the 138-foot schooner M.F. Merrick which sank in 1889 and the wreck of the steel freighter Etruria, which sank in 1905.

The M.F. Merrick schooner sank in 1889:

The collision between the steamer R.P. Ranney and the schooner M.F. Merrick, off Presque Isle, May 18, resulted in the sinking of the schooner and the loss of five of the crew of seven. The schooner was struck just aft of the fore rigging, and sunk under the bows of the steamer. The crew on deck took to the rigging, and went down with her about 30 seconds after the collision. Three of the crew were below when the vessel sunk. The captain was saved by a line thrown to him from the Ranney, and William Goodfellow was picked up by the steamer's yawl boat. The Merrick was built in 1877 at Clayton, New York.

In 1929, due to a captain and a company more concerned with profits than lives, the SS Milwaukee sank in a late October storm taking 52 souls to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

The SS Milwaukee had a fatal flaw in that it had no hatches between the main deck and the lower decks, though the ship inspection report said otherwise. As the ship took on water from the rough seas, it all flowed down to the lower parts of the ship uninhibited. And though the technology existed at the time, the railroad line that owned the ship, Grand Truck Railway, did not equip the ship with a means to communicate with land. They communicated their final information the old fashioned way....they wrote a final note about what had been happening to the ship while it was in distress, and basically stuffed it into a bottle and tossed it overboard.

Over and over again, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald is, unfortunately, not a unique one. It's just the most recent full scale disaster on the Great Lakes. November 10th 1975, the laker Edmund Fitzgerald carrying iron ore sank in a violent November storm taking 29 men to the bottom of Lake Superior.

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