The following is Rose Moore's newspaper column of Nov. 3, 2012 in the Community section of the weeklies of Gazette Newspapers (based in Jefferson, Ohio).
IT'S NOVEMBER, and a press release arrives. It tells me of the annual Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Service, on Nov.10th at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan. At 7 p.m. on that date, the Fitzgerald bell will be rung 30 times--the first 29 in honor of the 29 lost crew members, and the 30th in honor of all mariners lost on the Great Lakes.
Whitefish Point is an appropriate location for the memorial and museum. The wreckage of the Fitzgerald lies 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, in 535 feet of water. The museum, sponsored by the Great Lakes Historical Society, is based at a restored U.S. Lifesaving Station (later U.S. Coast Guard).
While the museum's base of interest seemed to grow around the Fitzgerald, the Historical Society's mission is broader, as they work to discover, study, preserve and share the Great Lakes' maritime history.
Two new exhibits were added in 2012. They feature in-depth, multi-media studies of the Carl D. Bradley and Daniel J. Morrell disasters. Over the years, any month of the year could have marked a Great Lakes disaster, but it was the sinking of the Bradley that sparked my own long-term interest in our region's shipwreck history.
For two years, beginning in 1958, I covered Fairport Harbor and its waterfront for Rowley Publications; they were the owners of the daily Painesville Telegraph and the Fairport Beacon and a number of other weeklies in the Lake-Ashtabula-Geauga region.
In those years, freighters were still streaming in and out of the harbor at Fairport, and I met and spoke with many skippers; a few times, I was even a dinner guest aboard their boats. (Yes, boats.... Unlike ocean sailors, the Great Lakes sailors referred to the large vessels on the Lakes as boats, not ships, and they made that very clear to me from the beginning.)
Admittedly, I never "met" the Edmund Fitzgerald or any of its crew, for that great boat was only a few months old when I began my beat. What I did quickly become aware of, from sailors and ex-sailors themselves, was the brutal influence of November weather on the Lakes.
In November 1958, during a delightful spell of Indian Summer, I sensed unease among the village residents. Coffee conversations had suddenly turned to weather history and barometric readings, and the brilliant skies and waters seemed to have become a magnet for distrust.
I quickly learned the history that made these people see a fine November day as a harbinger of trouble. The month's mercurial nature was well known to them, and the clashing autumn-into-winter weather systems brewed some wicked storms, taking many boats and sailors to their underwater graves.
Official shipping-season closing date was Nov. 15---the date most insurers cut off coverage for the owners. However, many skippers pushed beyond that date, hoping to make a few last runs before the Great Lakes froze. Many post-season runs did become just that---last runs---and the loss of boats and people punctuated November history on the Lakes.
ON ONE GENTLE Indian Summer day in Fairport, I talked and listened to the people in the restaurants, coffee shops, firehouse and other places, and I gathered up their stories like a student of November storms: Some stayed in my memory more than others, including:
*Nov. 1869... An unexpected, brutal storm hit all five Lakes, sending 77 vessels to their graves...
*Nov. 1879... The Canadian steamer Waubuno was one of 65 vessels that sank in a series of gales on Lake Huron, and 30 lives were lost, including a honeymooning bride who had dreamed of the shipwreck before it happened...
*Nov. 1896... A powerful storm during Thanksgiving Week took down the Persia and the Valentine. Both boats descended forever, with crews and cargo, into the depths of Lake Huron...
*Nov. 1905... Lake Superior was the target of an icy hurricane that sank 13 vessels and hurled 26 steel carriers into the rocky shorelines. Many of those boats had been bound for Cleveland...
*Nov. 8, 1913... A massive storm on this "Dark Sunday" wrecked 40 boats---many owned by Clevelanders, with Ohio crews---including eight large freighters which sank with no survivors. Among these was the 6300-ton Charles F. Price carrying coal from Cleveland...
The same storm's banshee winds and icy blizzards swallowed up the smaller "Christmas Tree Ship," a three-masted schooner, the Rouse Simmons, steaming toward Chicago with evergreens stacked high upon her decks. She battled the ferocious elements as heartbroken observers watched helplessly from points along the shoreline. The following spring, loads of unused Christmas trees were snagged by fishing nets, and legend says the Simmons and her trees can sometimes still be spotted in November storms...
*Nov. 11, 1940... In 125 miles-per-hour winds, the Anna C. Minch and William B. Davock disappeared into Lake Michigan with full crew, and no evidence thereafter as to where they'd met their fate... That storm also doomed the Canadian freighter Novadoc near Pentwater, Michigan. Miraculously, all but two of the Novadoc crew were brought back alive by the captain of a little fishing tug.
*Nov. 20, 1940... Many Ohio ore boats were among those stranded in the St. Mary River in temperatures of minus 35 degrees, when 247 freighters were ice-locked for weeks outside the Soo Canal; where they sat trapped, three and four abreast, for miles...
HOW COULD I, a young reporter in November 1958, have guessed that, in those Indian Summer days, yet another vicious weather system was poised to smack a Great Lakes freighter down? It would be Ohio's mighty Carl D. Bradley, as she steamed toward Lake Michigan, in what would be her own "last trip forever," to deliver one last cargo before the winter docking. The outcome stunned the Great Lakes shipping circles, and I was there to witness its effect on the harbor town of Fairport.
Owned by Bradley Transportation of U.S. Steel and built in 1927 at Lorain, the 640-foot namesake vessel was then the longest overall of any on the Lakes. Before that day, the Bradley fleet had never lost a freighter. The Bradley itself had recently been certified as seaworthy by the Coast Guard and the Lloyds Register of Shipping Inspection.
Considered the safest freighter on the Lakes, it had established many records and ridden out three decades of great storms. Her captain and officers were among the Lakes' most experienced.
The day of the storm, with waves breaking at 30 feet, the Bradley's captain reported calmly that his ship was riding out the storm quite well and needed only an hour to reach the Straits of Mackinac. Fifteen minutes before the freighter sank, the captain radioed his expected arrival time, still noting no concerns. At 5:31 p.m. as the captain spoke by radio, a loud noise was heard and the captain urgently reported a horizontal split opening across the deck---the ship was swiftly breaking into two pieces!
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! was radioed out, and short-wave operators heard the abandon-ship whistle and life-jacket call. Radio contact broke off abruptly in the midst of the final Mayday. There were only two survivors; and 55 children were left instantly fatherless.
Over coffee the next morning in Fairport and in every other harbor town around the Lakes, there would be one somber topic---the loss of the Bradley and her crew.
GREAT LAKES SHIPPING dropped off sharply, and technology steadily improved, yet November continued to take its toll on the Lakes---including, most memorably, the following:
*Nov. 1966... The Daniel J. Morrell, travelling with her sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend, was on the last trip of the season, leaving home port at Cleveland to load iron ore at Michigan. Tom Connelly of Mentor was piloting the Townsend; the Morrell was piloted by Skipper Art Crowley of Rocky River with many northeast Ohio crew, including 26-year-old Dennis Hale of Ashtabula.
Heading into stormy Huron, the ships lost visual contact but continued talking by radio. Suddenly all contact with the Morrell was lost, and the vessel was not seen or heard from until after the storm, when bits of wreckage surfaced. Hale was the sole survivor. Thrown from the ship as it broke up, Hale had landed near a raft with several others; his companions froze to death before rescue.
(Carrying survivor's guilt, Hale couldn't talk about the experience for many years. Later he was the subject of a book, and more recently he wrote about the tragedy himself. Now he shares his memories quite openly in appearances throughout the region).
*Nov. 1975... The storied Edmund Fitzgerald sank with its entire crew. Among 14 Ohio crewmen, First Assistant Engineer Eddie Bindon was a native son of Fairport. Christened and launched two months before the Bradley's demise in 1958, the 729-foot size of the "Big Fitz" had pushed the Bradley off the record books. But like the Bradley---yes, perhaps like the Titanic too!---its size could not protect it from unpredictable November.
AS I RECALL in later accounts, the family of a crew member of the Fitz had been picnicking on a Lake Erie shore, completely unaware that, as they enjoyed their fine November day, their loved one's boat was being stalked by tragedy.
A Great Lakes sailor later told me that genetic imprinting and the experience of history had surely filled those loved ones with the same innate anxiety I had witnessed in November 1958, in Fairport Harbor, in the balmy days before the sinking of the Bradley.
"It was November, after all," he quietly reminded me. And by then, I understood.
(Shipwreck Museum information is available at http://www.shipwreckmuseum.com.)
(Order Dennis Hale's book at firstname.lastname@example.org )
(Whatever the weather, you can direct comments to our columnist Rose Moore herself at email@example.com)