The Fitzgeralds: Ships and Men

The story of the William E. Fitzgerald bulk carrier begins with William and Julia Fitzgerald of Marine City, Michigan, the center of an active wooden shipbuilding industry in the late 19th century. Julia and William had six sons who were fascinated with the wooden sailing ships and early steamboats on the St. Clair River which joins the Belle River at Marine City.

The six Fitzgerald brothers all became captains on Great Lakes ships. Julia and William’s youngest son, John Fitzgerald was a lake captain who started a shipyard on the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The yard was located on the south bank of the Menomonee River near the Sixth Street bridge.  John’s son William E. Fitzgerald (1859-1901) took over his father’s business, the Milwaukee Shipyard Company in the 1890s.
In 1863, a group of 12 ships’ carpenters cooperated to start a shipyard that they called Milwaukee Shipyard, and they operated it until 1867 when Allan, McClellan & Company acquired it. In 1874, Captain John Fitzgerald bought the business and incorporated it as Milwaukee Shipyard Company. In 1894, Milwaukee Shipyard Company merged with Wolf & Davidson as Milwaukee Dry Dock Company. Milwaukee Dry Dock Company didn’t build ships, but concentrated instead on ship repair.
Captain John Fitzgerald’s son William E. Fitzgerald, had a close friend Captain Dennis Sullivan of Wyandotte, Michigan. In 1906, Captain Dennis Sullivan built and christened the bulk propeller W.E. Fitzgerald in Wyandotte to honor his friend.  The Detroit Ship Building Company in Wyandotte built the William E. Fitzgerald as Hull #167 for the Chicago Navigation Company in Chicago. She was launched on September 8, 1906, and she entered service in October 1906.

Perhaps as a prophecy of things to come, the William E. Fitzgerald didn’t always enjoy smooth sailing on the Great Lakes. On December 14, 1926, she got caught in heavy seas outside of Port Arthur, Ontario and suffered damage to her frames and hull plating. Many of her hull plates were repaired and 25,000 rivets replaced at Superior, Wisconsin.
 In 1928, Boom Electric Welding Company in Cleveland converted her to a scraper type self- unloader. Her conversion didn’t keep her from rough seas. On November 25, 1930, she ran aground in the Livingstone Channel in the Detroit River, and on August 28, 1931, she got stuck in the mud in the Saginaw River.
In 1932, Gartland Steamship Company of Chicago bought the William E. Fitzgerald, and later that year she earned the distinction of being the first U.S. self- unloader to use the 4th Welland Canal. She struck the Lake St. Bridge in Chicago twice, once in 1939 and again in 1952.
In 1969, the American Steamship Company bought the W.E. Fitzgerald, but she never sailed for them. Instead, she laid up until October 1971, when the tugs Herbert A. and G.W. Rogers towed her to Ramey’s Bend. The tow arrived October 21, 1971 and the W.E. Fitzgerald was scrapped in Humberstone, Ontario over the winter of 1971-1972. [1]
The Fitzgerald ship saga continued into the next generations even after William E. Fitzgerald died and the ship William E. Fitzgerald had been scrapped into maritime history. William E. Fitzgerald’s son Edmund Bacon Fitzgerald (1895-1986) was the chairmen of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company in Milwaukee when it financed the building of the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and christened it for him.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was built and assembled at Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse and River Rouge, Michigan, and lunched on June 7, 1958 in River Rouge.  The 729 foot , eight million dollar ore carrier was the largest on the Great Lakes at the time of her launch. Edmund’s wife Elizabeth christened the massive iron ore freighter, whacking it three times before her champagne bottle broke over its bow.
 Ironically, Lake Superior claimed the ship that had been named for William E. Fitzgerald’s son Edmund on November 10, 1975, about three years after the ship that had been named for him was scrapped. The Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a Lake Superior storm 17 miles north of Whitefish Bay. All 29 crew members went down with the ship. Why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank is still debated into the 21st Century, and she and her crew are still remembered and mourned, thanks in part of the ballad by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
 Edmund Bacon Fitzgerald’s son Edmund B. Fitzgerald or “Young Ed”, was born in 1926 and died in 2013. Although he had accomplished much in his life, including bringing major league baseball back to Milwaukee, and becoming a successful executive at Cutler Hammer, the legacy of the Edmund Fitzgerald was never far from his mind. He once said that the launch of the Edmund Fitzgerald, witnessed by a crowd of 15,000 , was the happiest day of his father’s life. And the day of the wreck, when 25 foot waves and near hurricane force winds roiled Lake Superior and sank the Edmund Fitzgerald was “probably the worst day of my father’s life.”[2]

[1] The William E. Fitzgerald; W.E. FITZGERALD Built September 8, 1906 Bulk propeller — Steel 
U.S. No. 203561 4940 gt – 3701 nt 420′ x 52.2′ x 29′ 
Converted to self-unloader in 1928. Scrapped at Humberstone, Ont., winter, 1971-1972. 
Detroit/Wyandotte Master Shipbuilding List, Institute for Great Lakes research, Perrysburg, Ohio. 
 [2]  Edmund B. Fitzgerald dies at 87; known for baseball, shipwreck ties

some hometown controversies about the edmund fitzgerald

Ecorse, John Duguay, and the Edmund Fitzgerald

by Kathy Warnes

Two of John Duguay’s photos of the Edmund Fitzgerald

John Duguay was one of the premier photographers recording Ecorse History in the 1950s. John had a special interest in the Great Lakes Engineering Works shipyard in Ecorse. Great Lakes Engineering had built its Hull #1, the Fontana, in 1905 and it was still in service on the Great Lakes.

Workers worked in the shipyards to build more vessels for the Great Lakes and repair and converted existing vessels for ocean service in both World Wars I and II. They built ore carriers and other famous ships such as the state ferry Vacationland right up until 1969.  John followed the building history of the Great Lakes Engineering Works and he especially enjoyed photographing the Edmund Fitzgerald.

On February 1, 1957, the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company of Milwaukee signed a contract with the Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse to build the first super freighter on the Great Lakes. By August 7, 1957, workers at the shipyard at the Great Lakes Engineering Works laid the keel of the 729 foot ore carrier. Initially known as Hull 301, it would be the largest ore carrier on the Great Lakes. Besides Hull 301 the Great Lakes Shipyard Workers also labored on another 729 foot ore carrier for the Bethlehem Steel Corporation and a 696 foot freighter for the Interlake Steamship Company.

According to Hugh McElroy, general superintendent of the Great Lakes Engineering Works, building the three vessels would provide employment for approximately 1,300 workers for the next three years and triple the company’s working force.  He said that work would begin on the other two ships before Hull 301 was finished.

Hugh McElroy and other officials of Great Lakes Engineering and the Columbia Transportation Company which was slated to operate the seven-million-dollar vessel for 27 years watched a giant crane swing the keel plate into place.  Charles Haskill, president of the Great Lakes Engineering Works, and Fred R. White, Jr., of Cleveland, executive vice president of the Columbia Transportation Company division of the Oglebay Norton Company, Cleveland, officiated at the brief ceremony that preceded the laying of the first portion of the keel.  The ship was commissioned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee.

The giant ship, designed for Great Lakes and Seaway shipping, was slated to be launched early in the spring of 1958. It was to be constructed of prefabricated steel sub-assemblies, the first prefabrication ever done on a large lake vessel. This was a radical departure from past shipbuilding procedures where the keel was laid first, then other bottom plates and the sides and interior built up piece by piece.

Hull 301 would have a 75-foot molded depth and have the carrying capacity of approximately 26,800 long tons of iron ore. It would be 13 feet longer than any vessel currently afloat on the Great Lakes.

Over the next nine months, John Duguay monitored the progress of the giant ship as it took shape on the ways. By another Thursday, Thursday June 12, 1958, the Ecorse Advertiser reported the story of the launching of the Edmund Fitzgerald which had taken place on Saturday, June 71958, and John was one of the crowd of over 15,000 people who flocked to the launching at Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse/River Rouge.

Spectators overflowed the reviewing stands erected for the launching ceremonies and as the gigantic ship dropped sideways into the Detroit River, Mrs. Edmund Fitzgerald, wife of the chairman of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, smashed a bottle of champagne on her bow.  People cheered as at 12:00 p.m., the 729 foot ship slid gently down greased ways into a 150 foot wide slip, creating a huge wave against the opposite shore.

The blasts of tugs, seven freighters, whistles from small craft and industries along the riverfront and the cheers of about 250 pleasure boaters mingled with the cheers of the spectators as the Edmund Fitzgerald rocked in the water. Airliners, military craft and two helicopters circled overhead.  Shipyard veterans remembered it as the loudest and longest salute to a launching they had ever experienced. According to the Ecorse Advertiser, it was “the biggest side launching ever held in the world.”

John took several photographs of the Edmund Fitzgerald during her launching and he and countless other Downriver citizens watched her graceful progress up and down the Detroit River over the years. The Edmund Fitzgerald‘s beauty, length, cargo carrying capacity and human fan club combined to make her “the pride of the American side.”

During the 1960s, her long time master, Captain Peter Pulcer, helped make her more popular by performing various antics to entertain people as the “big Fitz” glided down the rivers and lakes. He would salute people who might be watching his ship with whistle blasts and he would play music on the PA system so that everyone on shore could hear it. While passing through the Soo locks and narrow rivers like the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers, he would broadcast facts about the Edmund Fitzgerald with a bull horn. The Fitz set a number of cargo records over the years and proved to be extremely seaworthy. Besides the stiffening of hull members, installing a bow thruster in 1969 and converting to oil fuel and fitting of automated boiler controls over the winter of 1971-1972 were the only major work that the Edmund Fitzgerald ever needed.

“She was a beautiful ship and she was strong,” John remembers, with the look of Great Lakes horizons in his eye.

For 17 years, The Edmund Fitzgerald steamed stalwartly through the Great Lakes, taking storms and taconite pellets in her stride. Then as dawn broke on November 10, 1975, a massive low pressure system moved northwest from Escanaba, Michigan. As it moved across Lake Superior it whipped the waters into monster waves with foaming crests. Captain Ernst Mc Sorley, now master of the Edmund Fitzgerald, had accumulated over 40 years of experience on the Great Lakes, but this storm made him thoughtful.  He left Superior, Wisconsin with a load of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets to be delivered to Zug Island near Ecorse, charting his course within ten miles of the Arthur M. Anderson of the United States Steel Corporation’s Great Lakes Fleet, so that they could navigate seething Lake Superior together.

As the storm increased in intensity that afternoon, Captain McSorley called Captain Cooper of the Arthur Anderson and reported that the Fitz had lost two vent covers, some railing and was taking on water and listing. He asked Captain Cooper for a radar fix because his radar had failed. Darkness set in and snow squalls made the Fitz nearly invisible. At 7:10 p.m. Captain Cooper called Captain McSorley to check the condition of the Fitz. Captain McSorley replied, “We are holding our own.”

Fifteen minutes later as the Anderson emerged from a snow squall Cooper couldn’t believe what it wasn’t seeing. The Edmund Fitzgerald had disappeared from sight and sound. Captain Cooper couldn’t see her visually or on radar and couldn’t contact her by radio. Captain Cooper called the Coast Guard to report that “the Fitz is gone.”

Three days later a Navy helicopter and a Coast Guard found the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald approximately 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay in 535 feet of water. A 276 foot section of the bow sits upright and a 253 foot section of the stern lays inverted about170 feet away. In between lays piles of taconite pellets.

The mystery of what sank the Edmund Fitzgerald seems to lie as deep as the Fitzgerald herself. What forces of nature could sink a ship its size so quickly? None of the men aboard her sent flares or an SOS.  The ship just disappeared. If Captain McSorley had managed to bring her over those last few miles, she would have been safe in calmer water, but all 29 of her crew members, including Captain McSorley who had commanded her since 1972, were lost. None of their bodies ever washed ashore from the wreck.

On August 2, 1977, the Coast Guard released a report, saying that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank because of faulty hatch covers.  Many people were not satisfied with this report and over the years many controversial theories about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald have been put forth. Some people say that the Fitz could have bottomed out or grounded near Six Fathom Shoal which supposedly was not mapped correctly. Others contend that the crew may not have securely fastened the clamps that held down the hatches, allowing water to seep in. Or others contend that the hatches themselves had faulty covers.

According to some theories the Fitz had previous structural damage that had not been properly repaired and the adverse conditions of the storm made the damage worse and caused her to sink. Some people say that enormous waves called the Three Sisters, swamped and sank the Fitz. Many others think a monstrous wave could have buried the Fitz and pushed her front under water, causing her to hit ground and break in two. Or others say that the waves lifted the bow and stern of the Fitz, but could not hold the center of the ship that contained the cargo. The overload pushed the center down, sinking the Fitz and breaking it in two.

The crew members and the Edmund Fitzgerald herself are remembered in the minds and hearts of people who loved them both. On July 4, 1995 the ship’s bell was recovered from the wreck and now reposes in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point. An anchor that the Fitz lost on an earlier trip was recovered from the Detroit River and is displayed at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit.  The Museum Ship, Steamship Valley Camp, in Sault Ste. Marie holds some Fitzgerald Artifacts, including Lifeboat #2 which is shredded like paper, some photos and commemorative models and paintings.

One of the Ecorse ship yard workers who helped build the Fitz doesn’t remember her as being quite as strong as John Duguay remembered her.  Requesting to remain anonymous, he remarked that he and several of the other men who worked on her felt that she was not seaworthy because of inferior riveting and incorrect placement of some of the prefabricated parts. In fact, he thinks the way the Fitzgerald was built made her ultimately unseaworthy.

John Duguay’s service to America as a Navy Seal continued into his civilian life and probably explains his interest in taking photographs of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The creation and launching of a ship in your hometown is an exciting event and in the case of Great Lakes Engineering Works, the exciting event was repeated over and over in Ecorse. John Duguay was there to record the launching of the Edmund Fitzgerald and it is the ultimate tragedy that his photographs survived longer the she did.

(There is also controversy about where the Edmund Fitzgerald was built and launched – at the Great Lakes Engineering slips in Ecorse or the ones in River Rouge? When the issue arose in my blog in 2010, I wrote a note explaining that my sources said that the Fitzgerald was built and launched in Ecorse to rebut the contention that it was built and launched in River Rouge.  According to this comment from a Mr. Hoffman that I quote directly, the confusion seems to arise from the fact that Great Lakes Engineering created two slips north of Great Lakes Avenue in River Rouge and two slips south of Great Lakes Avenue in Ecorse.

This is Mr. Hoffman’s comment:

  1.  says:

November 27, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Some of us know that the Geographical location in question all began with an area known as “Grandport” then came Ecorse Township which included most of what is now known as “Downriver”. I heard reports that Great Lakes Engineering Works played politics in regards to the wanting of River Rouge Michigan, . to become a city proper for tax reasons, as to this report being factual is unsubstantiated. It is a fact that after River Rouge became its own city there were elements of Great Lakes Engineering Works in both Ecorse & Rive Rouge, as far as the building & launching of the “Mighty Fritz” is concerned I do believe the debate can summed up when the overall sources are considered… January 8, 1903 Great Lakes Engineering Works acquired an 85 acre parcel of land with 1400 feet of Detroit River frontage in the downriver community of Ecorse, MI. It was located just downriver from the mouth of the Rouge River and the then well known Smith Coal Dock…

Great Lakes Engineering created 4 Slips/Berths which still exist, two of which are north of Great lakes Ave. within the city of River Rouge & two which are south of Great lakes Ave In Ecorse. One of the two Slips south of Great lakes Ave. was enlarged in the 1940′s to accommodate the large Navy ships that were constructed during WWII, This large Slip would in fact have been the Slip the Mighty Fritz would have been Launched from…I believe the confusion about all of the Slips/Berths being located in River Rouge has to do more with a false sense of Geography due to the Lay misunderstanding of the Street grid of the roads on the East side of W. Jefferson to the water’s edge as a reference point as opposed to any City pride or rivalry…A ship built back in the 1950′s was built from the Keel up, where the Keel was laid (In the cradle) is at the waters edge, and the water’s edge in the Fritz’s case is that large Slip in Ecorse Mi.


  1.  says:

November 28, 2010 at 3:36 am

Addendum to previous comment: Regarding any confusion as to what city the Edmund Fitzgerald was Built/Launched within, one must consider that even though the lion’s share of the Great Lakes Engineering Works was located within the City of Ecorse at the time of the launching of the Fritz the name of the Yard in which it was launched was called the “River Rouge yard”..As to why it was called the River Rouge yard is unknown to this commenter(Perhaps tax purposes), however I do know that the yard name was adopted once River Rouge became a city..The Keel of Hull # 301 (Edmund Fitzgerald) was laid August 8, 1957 in Launching Slip # 3 South side, at the Great Lakes Engineering Works A.K.A. River Rouge Ship yard..Launching Slip # 3 of the Great Lakes Engineering Works River Rouge yard was located within the city of Ecorse Mi….The name River Rouge yard at first thought could perhaps make one conclude that the Fritz was built & launched within the city of River Rouge).

Whether the Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in Ecorse or River Rouge, she was a history making vessel with a tragic ending for her crew.

the edmund fitzgerald heading home

The tragic fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald has captured the hearts and imaginations of thousands of people, including the balladeer Gordon Lightfoot, who immortalized her in his 1976 song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

          When the Fitzgerald was launched on June 7, 1958 at the Ecorse. / River Rouge Yard of the Great Lakes Engineering works everyone thought that the launching would make a big splash. From its very beginnings, The Fitzgerald seemed to generate superlatives. The construction of the Fitzgerald created 1,000 jobs at the Great Lakes Engineering Works. The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin paid eight million dollars to buy the privilege of calling the naming the Fitzgerald after its chairman. At one point, the Fitzgerald was called the Queen of the Lakes because of her size. and because of her size- 8,500 tons – the shipbuilders thought that the Fitzgerald would throw a wave that would flood part of the Great Lakes Engineering Works and soak many of the thousands of spectators who had come to watch the launching. Instead, the Fitzgerald slid naturally into the water with only a nominal displacement of water. Mrs. Edmund Fitzgerald, wife of the chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life, cracked the traditional bottle of champagne over the bow.

          A family from River Rouge, Mayor and Mrs. John F. McEwan vividly recalled the launching of the Fitzgerald as a very special day for them. Several days before the launching their three-year-old son John had been hit by a speeding truck and had to spend several days in the hospital. He was discharged from the hospital just as the Fitzgerald was due to begin its career. Mayor and Mrs. McEwan wanted to do something for John to celebrate his homecoming so the entire family went down to the foot of Great Lakes Avenue and watched the Fitzgerald being launched.[1]

          As the Edmund Fitzgerald slid into the Detroit River at 12:40 p.m. on June 7, 1958, whistles blew loudly from yachts, sailboats, outboard boats, fishing boats, scows, tugs and freighters lining the waterfront to salute the launching. Airliners, military planes and two helicopters hovered overhead. When the launching was completed, the tug Maryland moved full speed ahead to keep the Fitzgerald from swinging against the banks of the launching basin. The Maryland quickly snubbed the Fitzgerald to shore where she remained until August when her cabins would be completed and her smokestack installed.[1]

          Her service years proved that the Great Lakes Engineering Company had built the Fitzgerald well. The only major work ever done on her was the installation of a bow thruster in 1969 and converting her to oil fuel and fitting automated boiler controls during the winter of 1971-1972.  The Fitzgerald set a number of cargo records over the years and was a favorite of ship watches because of her attractive appearance and the antics of her longtime master, Captain Peter Pulcer, who consistently entertained anyone he thought was watching the him and his ship.

On November 6, 1975, the Fitzgerald passed the Ecorse and River Rouge shores headed toward Minnesota. She left Silver Bay, Minnesota about 1:30 p.m. Sunday carrying a cargo of 30,000 tons of taconite She cleared Superior, Wisconsin on November 9, 1975, bound for Great Lakes Steel Corporation in Ecorse, close to where she had been launched. On the night of November 10, approximately 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay, she encountered heavy Lake Superior weather and sank with all 29 of her crew, including Captain Ernest McSorley of Toledo, Ohio, who had commanded her since 1972. Later, the broken hull of the Fitzgerald was located in 530 feet of water, the bow and stern sections lying close together.

Back at her birthplace on the Detroit River, Mayor McEwan and his son John stared at the River, and watching the Fitzgerald gliding into her home port in wistful imagination’s eye.  Gordon Lightfoot etched the Fitzgerald’s epitaph on the minds and hearts of many when he sang:

          In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed

          In the Maritime Sailor’s Cathedral,

          The church bell chimed ‘til it rang 29 times

          For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The literal and figurative bells rang in Ecorse and River Rouge as well and in Toledo, Ohio, and in the hearts and minds of people all over the country.