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Fitzgerald never forgotten

The freighter Edmund Fitzgerald is guided by the tug Vermont under the John A. Blatnik Bridge and through the opening in the Interstate Bridge in this undated photo from the 1960s. (file photo / News Tribune)1 / 3
A drawing showing the location of machinery in the Edmund Fitzgerald is among the plans for the ship held by the Jim Dan Hill Library at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
The Great Lakes Engineering Works of River Rouge, Mich., was hired in 1957 to design and build that ship that became the Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship -- the longest on the Great Lakes at the time -- was launched on June 7, 1958. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Today's 40th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald will be remembered at events across the Great Lakes region, including along the North Shore. In Silver Bay, there will be a beacon-lighting ceremony at Split Rock Lighthouse at 4:30 p.m.

Before the Nov. 10, 1975 tragedy that cost the lives of 29 men, including several from the Northland, the Fitzgerald made regular stops in Silver Bay to fill its cargo holds with taconite iron ore.

While the anniversary fills today's headlines, the popular ship inspires curiosity and reflection for many people any year, on any day of the week.

At Coney Island Deluxe on the 100 block of West First Street in Duluth, a large photo reproduction of the Fitzgerald adorns the east wall of the restaurant's dining hall. It's one of several maritime images that line the walls — a decor for the 70-plus-year-old establishment that hasn't changed since the 1980s.

"People love it," said owner George Regas of the giant image that portrays an angular side view of the Fitzgerald as if it were steaming toward the salad bar. "A lot of people who used to work on the ships like it. People come in and ask to take photographs of it."

Regas and Coney Island Deluxe's longtime cashier Larry Davis recalled the history of the Fitzgerald photograph, saying an occasionally down-on-his luck photographer would come in and receive free meals from John Regas, George's uncle, who owned the restaurant for its first 55 years.

The late photographer's name was Howard Weiss, recalled Davis. He lived less than a block away. He left a business card on the diner's counter top. He would come in regularly for toast and coffee, said Davis. Little is known about the late Weiss, except that he loved to photograph the port and its ships. Perhaps as a gesture of gratitude or perhaps because he needed the money, Weiss brought in the framed Fitzgerald photograph and other images for Regas to display sometime in the 1980s. Weiss died several years ago, Davis said.

"It's a conversation piece, that's for sure," said Davis of Weiss's most famous photograph. "You'd be amazed how many people want to talk about it."

Across the bridge in Superior, in the Jim Dan Hill Library at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Shana Aue fields inquiries from Fitzgerald enthusiasts any time of the year.

As the special-collections librarian, Aue manages a file cabinet drawer's worth of documents on the Fitzgerald as well as a set of technical drawings for the ship that the library received from Fraser Shipyards of Superior earlier this year. Fraser received the drawings in the early 1970s, when it was responsible for the ship's conversion from coal to oil burning.

There are any number of drawings in the collection, amounting to an all-access dissection of the ship — cross-sections and intricate views of the most internal and hidden points of interest. The technical drawings are stored in a secure, temperature- and humidity-controlled storage area.

"If people are trying to build a model," Aue said, "this is what they would ask for."

There are other Fitzgerald goodies in the UWS collection, including two copies of the Coast Guard's Marine Casualty Report, newspaper clippings and old photographs, and images from an interpretive dance that came about in the years after the wreck.

"For a lot of people there's just kind of a general interest in seeing what's here and learning more," Aue said. "A lot of people are interested in the Coast Guard report; almost no one is looking for the interpretive dance."

In Two Harbors, Mel Sando, executive director of the Lake County Historical Society, is always fielding inquires about the Fitzgerald. Sando operates three museums, including the 1892 Two Harbors Light Station. The wreck of the Fitzgerald is the number one topic addressed to museum hosts, Sando said.

But Sando likes to point people's curiosity in another direction: toward the Arthur M. Anderson. The Anderson trailed the Fitzgerald during the storm and was in communication with her until the end. It even turned around in the furious weather to look for the Fitzgerald on the eastern neck of Lake Superior.

"It had no business being out there either and it's still sailing today," Sando said. "That's why the Anderson is my favorite boat. It's old school, with an old forward pilot house. I like to point her out to people when the Anderson comes in and is loading. The Anderson was right behind the Fitzgerald."

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