Thursday, November 24, 2005

 

Museum Serves As A Grim Reminder Of The Great Lakes' Fury

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Greenwich Times
By Denis Horgan
November 06, 2005

WHITEFISH POINT, Mich. -- The Invincible wasn't. The Invincible was the first major ship known to sail on Lake Superior. On Nov. 14, 1816, the 60-foot vessel also became the first ship known to sink in the lake, lost in a great storm off Whitefish Point - as if nature would not be mocked by the affront of naming a craft as invulnerable.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was 12 times longer than the Invincible, and at 729 feet and with all the marvels of modern technology, it, too, was believed to be unsinkable, or certainly able to hold her own in the wild weather of Lake Superior's winters.

On Nov. 10, 1975, it, too, went down, with all 29 hands lost in a great storm off Whitefish Point.The lake and its unique weather systems demand respect.

Whitefish Point reaches out into some of the most dangerous waters on the continent, with shoals, harsh currents and so many other great dangers to vessels and crews alike. The region has grimly harvested shipwreck after shipwreck as ship traffic funnels into the Soo Locks at Saulte Ste. Marie.

While other maritime cultures build great monuments to their admirals and seafarers and merchant marines, here the respect goes to those lost when the waters and winds collect a high toll. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum tells a grimmer story than the jolly sea tales told so many places elsewhere.

The Shipwreck Museum honors the 30,000 mariners who have lost their lives in more than 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes over time. It collects memorabilia, records and artifacts of the vessels and crews swallowed up by the great lakes they plied for commerce or pleasure. It amasses information and detail of the huge losses so that no bit of it should be forgotten. Mostly, it honors those men and women and their craft, gone forever.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, commemorated by Gordon Lightfoot's haunting ballad, holds center stage. Its 200-pound ship's bell has been recovered and put on display at the museum.

No trace has ever been found of the captain or crew; theories as to what brought down the great vessel are debated more than 30 years later.

Walking at water's edge, you have the sense of being at an ocean beach, a seemingly unending body of water reaching out beyond the horizon, sand and rock under foot, gulls calling out overhead. During so much of the year, the scene is calm and peaceful.

The red-roofed, white-walled buildings and light tower seem dazzlingly attractive and evocative of life on the shore: bright, clean, pleasant. When the season's sun hits these buildings, one nearly has to turn away, so sharp is the gleam.

In winter, though, huge muscular storms tear out of Canada, whipping this lake to an ocean's wildness. Thirty-foot waves are common in November. Thirty-foot waves. Even the most gigantic ships, the lengths of several football fields, appreciate that none is truly safe in such moments. The Edmund Fitzgerald, broken in two and rusting under 500 feet of water, attests to that.

Hauling taconite iron pellets from Superior, Wis., to a processing plant on Zug Island near Detroit, the Mighty Fitz sailed into a monster storm and, just 17 miles off shore and within sight of the storm-battered Whitestone Light, went down to her doom.

Though there are hearings and studies and theories galore, no one really knows what took place that horrid November night. Some believe the great ship gouged out a portion of herself hitting underwater shoals; others believe that freakish wave conditions lifted each end of the long vessel, and she cracked in the middle under her own great weight; many others think that improperly fastened hatches on her great cargo hold allowed storm water to enter below, sloshing forward to haul the vessel down by the nose.

The ship, already legendary for its size and record-setting passages of cargo, has assumed mythic stature since its hard demise. Lightfoot's song called the world's attention to the pain and loss to be endured carrying bits of rock from one place to another. The museum displays models and artifacts retrieved from down below; there are files and photographs and portraits and maps, charting the business of sailing the Great lakes, often at vast peril; there are diving suits and lighthouse lenses and seafaring gear; there is, above all else, respect for those who have been taken by nature's might and man's mistakes in judgment.

The museum and unmanned light station focus attention on the loss, death and destruction upon the Great Lakes, but the larger and greater message is in tribute to those who risk their lives in the ancient calling of taking to the waterways in ships.

For more information see http://www.shipwreckmuseum.com/, or call 800-635-1742.; http://www.ssefo.com/, www.ship-wrecks.org/shipwreck/index.jsp or www.boatnerd.com.


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