“The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald...”
The haunting lyrics of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” immortalized forever the true story of the now famous November 10, 1975 sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald freighter. The Canadian folksinger wrote the song to honor and commemorate the shipwreck and loss of the 29 souls manning the ship the fateful November day. News of the ship’s disappearance broke after a raging storm took the “Fitz”, leaving behind only an oil slick and debris. Families of the crew, and radio listeners and television viewers around the world were devastated to hear of the tragedy at sea, including Lighfoot–who read about the ship in Newsweek, and soon after wrote the ballad.
The songwriter told the story of the freighter’s journey carrying a load of iron ore from Wisconsin, and the hurricane force storm that took her down, “And ev’ry man knew, as the captain did too ’twas the witch of November come stealin’/The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait when the Gales of November came slashin’/When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain in the face of a hurricane west wind “.
Known as the November Witch or the Gales of November, the storm carried winds of up to 100 miles per hour and brought waves that rose up to 35 feet high:
The Witch of November is a late-fall storm only known to the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are freshwater seas that are so large that they can produce their own weather systems. The water temperature of the Great Lakes is still warm in late fall. When cold arctic air from Canada collides with warmer air over the lakes and those brought from the south, severe storms develop bringing winds from 50 to 100 miles per hour. Wave heights can reach 20 to 35 feet.
The most infamous Witch of November came 35 years ago this month when 60 mph winds, 100 mph gusts and waves of 35 feet sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. The ship carried 29 crew members and iron ore from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit, Michigan when she sank near White Fish Point in Lake Superior.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac:
The November Witch, sometimes phrased as “the Witch of November,” is a popular name for the frequent and brutal system of windy storms that come screaming across the Great Lakes from Canada every autumn.
Though termed “lakes,” North America’s Great Lakes are each large enough to create their own weather systems, making them, more accurately, inland seas. In fact, collectively, the Great Lakes chain makes up the Earth’s largest system of freshwater seas. Each year, right around mid-November, violent gales occur when the low pressure from the frigid arctic air north of the lakes come into contact with warmer fronts pulled up from the Gulf of Mexico. These storms can be so severe that their force is equivalent to a low-level hurricane, with winds above 80 miles per hour and towering 20-foot seas.
In the song, Lighfoot describes the church in downtown Detroit, MI where “the church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times” for the crew of the ship, known as the “Fitz”. Lightfoot sings, “In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed in the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.” The church he describes, actually called the Mariners Church, is the oldest stone church in Detroit.
The limestone church was originally built in 1842, but was later moved less than 900 feet in 1955.
From the website Experience Detroit Architecture:
This rectangular, front-gable Gothic Revival church with walls of grey, irregularly coursed limestone topped by a crenellated roofline is the oldest stone church in Michigan. The facade shows a single-story dominated by a central rose window depicting a mariner’s compass and mariner’s wheel. The church is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was immortalized in the 1975 ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as the “cathedral” where “the church bell chimed ’til it rang 29 times” for each man that perished on the doomed freighter.
In 1818, Colonel John Anderson and his wife Julia (along with her sister Charlotte) came to the area that is now downtown Detroit. The city was still ‘frontier’ and had recently been witness to fire in 1805, and the War of 1812. Col. Anderson was commissioned to Detroit to establish an Army Corps of Engineers for the Upper Great Lakes, and the couple acquired a double lot near ‘the wharf’ of the Detroit River.
Julia and her sister Charlotte later established the church, after her husband died in 1834. From the Mariners Church of Detroit website:
With the opening of the Erie Canal, the invention of steam-powered boats, and the burgeoning of Detroit, Julia Anderson and her sister Charlotte observed increasing numbers of seamen traverse the city. These sailors were too often marginalized and treated as outsiders—relegated to the back of society, and literally, to the backs of churches. With a heart of compassion Julia Anderson (a widow since 1834), willed in 1842 that her “lot on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Woodbridge Street in Detroit become “a site for a Mariners’ Church…” She also specified that it be a stone church (built for the ages), with “forever free” pews so that mariners would not have to be relegated to the back.
The church was thus constructed on the site of Julia Anderson’s mansion and its exact size was dictated by the lot on which her mansion stood. Initially organized in 1842, within a year Mariners’ commenced upon its mission to watch over the spiritual well-being of sailors and the greater community, and the current stone structure was consecrated in 1849.
The church had to be moved in 1955, with the construction of the new Civic Center, now known as the Renaissance Center. A Detroit News columnist named George Stark saved the building from demolition by asking his readers to donate funds for the church to be moved just 880 feet to a site that had been the Indian Council House and also the Army Corps of Engineers Topigraphical Corps offices. The relocation process was featured in the April, 1955 issue of Life magazine. During the move a pre-civil war tunnel was discovered that had been used by the church as part of the Underground Railroad to assist former slaves from the building’s basement to the waterfront where Detroit meets what is now Windsor, Canada.
The churches present and permanent location is tightly nestled under the looming shadow of not only the GM headquarters but sits directly on the busy street front of Jefferson Ave. next to Hart Plaza and within feet of the front of the International Detroit Windsor Tunnel:
While much of the original structure and design were used to rebuild the church in the move, there was also enough donations money left over to add several new elements to maintain the aesthetics of the new locations higher visiblility. For instance, the original structure abutted another building, so when it was moved the corner stones and side walls which had not been visible before had to be changed.
On the grounds of the church various historical markers and points of interest have been added, including memorial markers and a bronze sculpture (circa 1966) of George Washington donning a master mason’s apron:
On that historic night in November, 1975 Rt. Rev. Richard W. Ingalls, Sr. was awakened with news that the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was in peril. Soon after, he received word that the ship and crew had perished at sea and he came from the rectory in Grosse Pointe, MI to the Mariners Church to ring the Brotherhood Bell twenty-nine times, one time for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald. He tells his story in the video below:
“I was awakened by Robert E. Lee, curator of the Dossin Marine Museum on Belle Isle, who said that the “Fitz” was in trouble. He had a ship-to-shore phone–radio. And so I immediately began to get dressed. In a few minutes, he called me again and said, “It doesn’t look good”, which was a way of course of saying that this ship has gone down but no official word has been made.
I came from the rectory in Grosse Pointe down Jefferson Avenue to this old church, and as this video will probably show (I retraced my steps) entering into the door below, coming up the steps, going across the north…[not clear]…and down into the bell tower, where I rang the Brotherhood Bell twenty-nine times.”
The Mariners Church of Detroit is still open and holds regular services. In March each year the church holds a Blessing of the Fleet for those going out to sea, and a Great Lakes Memorial Service each November for those who have lost their lives at sea. The Great Lakes memorial will be held on November 13, 2011. For more information, please go to the Mariners Church website.
In the famous song ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’, Gordon Lightfoot described the beautiful gothic stone church “musty” and “old”, but many years later changed those words. Upon visiting the historic church built to honor mariners and provide a free place of worship to those at sea, Lightfoot told the church that he would substitute the word ‘rustic’ in all future performances of the haunting ballad.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, MI in the upper peninsula is now the home of the bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. From their website:
The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald remains the most mysterious and controversial of all shipwreck tales heard around the Great Lakes. Her story is surpassed in books, film and media only by that of the Titanic…The Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with her entire crew of 29 men on Lake Superior November 10, 1975, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan. Whitefish Point is the site of the Whitefish Point Light Station and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) has conducted three underwater expeditions to the wreck, 1989, 1994, and 1995. At the request of family members surviving her crew, Fitzgerald’s 200 lb. bronze bell was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society on July 4, 1995. This expedition was conducted jointly with the National Geographic Society, Canadian Navy, Sony Corporation, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The bell is now on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to her lost crew.
Finally, in honor of the twenty-nine men who perished on November 10, 1975, I leave you with a video of the famous song: