If you're from Michigan, you know the opening line from Gordon Lightfoot's epic saga of the Edmund Fitzgerald by heart...'The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down...'

Friday marks the 42nd Anniversary of the last major shipwreck in the Great Lakes, and the 41st anniversary of Lightfoot's epic depiction of it. But did you know the story of the lyric that Lightfoot changed out of respect to the crew?

The fierce winds began early on the morning of November 9, 1975, and they reached epic proportions the following day, when the full force gales pummeled Lake Superior and did the unthinkable, took down the largest freighter in service on the Great Lakes, The Edmund Fitzgerald, with 29 crew members aboard.

The Fitzgerald had an unfortunate nickname, one all of the crew hated, 'The Titanic of the Great Lakes.' 

The event was well known at the time, but may have sunk into deep Great Lakes lore if not for the song released in the summer of 1976 by Gordon Lightfoot as an album cut on 'Summertime Dream' .

The lilting, slow moving tribute was scorned by record company executives, but became a national hit thanks to airplay by Canadian and US disc jockeys in the Great Lakes region, who loved the local tie in.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything segment, Lightfoot says his inspiration for the melody was an old Irish dirge.

The Edmund Fitzgerald really seemed to go unnoticed at that time, anything I'd seen in the newspapers or magazines were very short, brief articles, and I felt I would like to expand upon the story of the sinking of the ship itself," he said. "And it was quite an undertaking to do that, I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because I already had a melody in my mind and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old.

Gordon was contrite in his efforts to accurately portray the final moments of their lives, but admits he stretched a few facts to make his song work. Lightfoot unwittingly sang about the cause of the wreck, which investigators initially said may have been the crew's failure to quickly 'batten down the hatches.'

This fact was later disproven, causing Lightfoot some lyrical problems, according to Songfacts.com:

An initial investigation suggested that the crew was partly to blame for the disaster by not securing the ship's hatches. Lightfoot's song reflected the original findings in the verse, "…at 7 p.m. a main hatchway gave in." However, in 2010 a Canadian documentary claimed to have proven the crew of the ship was not responsible for the tragedy. It concluded that there is little evidence that failure to secure the ship's hatches caused the sinking.

Lightfoot said he changed the key lyric to reflect the new findings. "I'm sincerely grateful to yap films and their program The Dive Detectives for putting together compelling evidence that the tragedy was not a result of crew error," he said in a release. "This finally vindicates, and honors, not only all of the crew who lost their lives, but also the family members who survived them."

Original version:
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in; he said...
Changed to...
At seven PM, it grew dark, it was then he said...

One of the mysteries of the wreck was why the huge wave which took down the Fitzgerald, didn't take down the Arthur Anderson, which was just behind the Fitzgerald the fateful moment near Whitefish Bay.

An article detailing the story on ShipwreckMuseum.com says the Fitz was already listing badly when a rogue set of waves battered the Anderson, and assumedly the Fitz.

According to Captain Cooper, about 6:55 pm, he and the men in the Anderson’s pilothouse felt a “bump”, felt the ship lurch, and then turned to see a monstrous wave engulfing their entire vessel from astern. The wave worked its way along the deck, crashing on the back of the pilothouse, driving the bow of the Anderson down into the sea.


“Then the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water – barrooff – just like a big dog. Another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.”

So annually, the church bell tolls in Detroit for the 29 lost that day in 1975. 

They are:

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