Ecorse, John Duguay, and the Edmund Fitzgerald
by Kathy Warnes
Along with Sandy Blakeman, 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 convert 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 7, 1958, 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. Mr. Hoffman 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 Mi. 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. Mr. Hoffman 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).