The Edmund Fitzgerald as Contemporary Maritime Archaeology
As of this writing, it has been 44 years since the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on 10 November 1975. In archaeological terms, the definition of a “Historic” archaeological site is a site that is at least 50 years old. This means that in 6 short years the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald will be considered a historic archaeological site.
“The National Register criteria considerations are: A property achieving significance within the last 50 years may be eligible if it is of exceptional importance.” U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
Even then, there is the matter of how the site is treated and researched. Research being the operative word. The famous RMS Titanic, for instance, was discovered in 1985 and has been dove extensively by many entities since then, but the actual archaeological survey of the Titanic did not happen until 2010 when the entire wreck site was scanned into 3d by ROV’s.
“Now the wreck of Titanic has finally become what it was always meant to be: an archaeological site.” James Delgado.
However, the Edmund Fitzgerald already enjoys the protection and recognition as an archaeological site. Even though she is a US Flagged ship Homeported out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the ship sunk in Canadian territorial waters. As a US ship sunk in foreign waters, the vessel is still subject to US Admiralty Law and still considered US property. Being sunk in Canadian waters, the wreck is protected by the Ontario Heritage Act, under Marine Archaeological Sites which specifically prescribed the wreck and a radius around it to be protected as a Marine Archaeological site. Under Canadian Law, it means that any activity including diving, submarine exploration, side-scan sonar survey, ROV survey, or underwater camera work or any other survey device on a registered archaeological site (and the radius around it) requires a license. Violating this law could result in fines of up to $1 Million (Canadian).
Even though the Edmund Fitzgerald is too recent being built in 1958 and sunk in 1975; to be considered a historic archaeological site by the standards set down by the National Park Service, it needed to be recognized as an archaeological site in order to afford it any official protection as a gravesite. Where the Fitzgerald is concerned it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever be able to procure such a license from the Canadian government. This is due to the fact that the ship sank comparatively recently with a total loss of its crew of twenty-nine. The loss of these individuals is still felt by their families even to this day. The wreck is ostensibly a “no dive” zone, out of respect for the crew and their families, it’s better to leave the wreck untouched in order to be respected as a gravesite. The Last official dive being 25 years ago in 1995 to recover the ship’s bell to be displayed at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, and in the same year, there was also an unofficial insane dive by trimix divers down to the wreck for about six minutes. Although diving technology has progressed leaps and bounds since that time, one of the factors aiding in the protection of the Edmund Fitzgerald is its extreme depth of 530 feet.
Regardless of being sunk in Canadian waters and already protected by the Ontario Heritage Act, the Edmund Fitzgerald still may be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Which I feel is virtually assured because of the Edmund Fitzgerald is exceptionally important.
The history of the Edmund Fitzgerald is well documented and well attested. Although I am planning a possible future blog post in the “Contemporary Shipwrecks” series, numerous books have been written about the vessel and its fateful voyage. Though, in the 44 years since the vessel’s sinking theories still abound about what caused the final sinking. It has inspired equally as much armchair speculation. I feel that there is little more this researcher could add to the discussion. What I can offer is a personal story of my connection to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
When I was growing up, once a year my family would go on week-long camping trips. Most of the time it was to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Every trip we took, we would visit the various lighthouses and maritime museums in the region. There are still only a handful of maritime museums on the Great Lakes that I haven’t visited. A lot of my interest in maritime history came from my father, who was the one who insisted that we visited these places. On one of these trips, we visited the museum ship Valley Camp in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan where on display are both the recovered lifeboats from the Edmund Fitzgerald. These lifeboats along with few other artifacts across several museums comprise the recovered material culture of the ship.
I remember walking up to the lifeboat and my dad put his hand on it. He then had me put my hand on it and told me “This is important.” It was a transformative moment for me. At that point as a child, all I had was the story of the Fitzgerald that my dad told me and the pictures I had seen of the ship. In that moment, history suddenly became real. That ship and its story suddenly became real. Although I did not fully comprehend it at that time, I still recall that moment, because, for that moment, I was connected to that ship, it’s crew and its history.
There is a scene from a movie that perfectly illustrates this situation. It comes from the film Star Trek: First Contact.
“It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must’ve seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian but I was never able to touch it….for humans touch can connect you to an object, make it seem more real.” Captain Jean Luc Picard
It was a powerful moment. It was a moment that influenced me and continues to influence me after all of this time. It was a moment that put me on this crazy path that I currently am on and one that inspired the creation of JaySea Archaeology. I am thankful to have gotten that opportunity to encounter history in that way it gave me more insight and meaning.
Sources & Resources
Blake, Erica. Fitzgerald Site Gets Added Protection. The Toledo Blade
Delgado, James P. Archaeology of the Titanic. Archaeology Magazine. Vol. 65 No. 3
Edmund Fitzgerald Lost Tapes
Ellison, Garrett. Diver Recalls Record Scuba Descent to Edmund Fitzgerald Shipwreck. Mlive.
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries. Ontario Heritage Act
Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries. Marine Archaeology.
Museum Ship Valley Camp
National Transportation Safety Board. Marine Accident Report: SS Edmund Fitzgerald Sinking in Lake Superior November 10, 1975
Schnieder, Dan Heritage Blog. OHA+M Ontario Heritage Act and More: Automatic Protection in the Deep. Dan Schneider Heritage Blog.
Star Trek: First Contact
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Guidelines for Nominating Shipwrecks and Historic Vessels to the National Register of Historic Places
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines.