The legacy of 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'

Gordon Lightfoot, who died Monday at 84, had many hits. It's a 1976 song about a doomed freighter, though, that's drawn thousands to the Lake Superior shore.

Edmund Fitzgerald
The Edmund Fitzgerald on the St. Marys River near Sault Ste. Marie, May 1975.
Contributed / Bob Campbell

DULUTH — When news broke of Gordon Lightfoot's death Monday at age 84, Minnesotans reading his obituaries may have been surprised to discover that "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976) wasn't even the songwriter's best-known composition.

Album cover: "Summertime Dream" by Gordon Lightfoot, featuring sepia tone photograph of a light-skinned, bearded man looking thoughtful.
Cover art for "Summertime Dream," the 1976 Gordon Lightfoot album containing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
Contributed / Reprise

"Sundown" (1974) and "If You Could Read My Mind" (1970) are both more popular on Spotify. "Early Morning Rain" (1966) has been covered by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Lightfoot's other musical achievements aside, there's just one iconic song Lake Superior visitors call up to soundtrack their TikTok videos when the gales of November start to whip the shores of "the big lake they called Gitche Gumee."

A haunting guitar hook sets the stage for an utterly sincere, consistently gripping account of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which foundered in a storm and sank in eastern Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.


Kaylee Matuszak, a park ranger who works at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, said it's a "daily occurrence" to have museum visitors reference the Lightfoot song. Often, while viewing the museum's Edmund Fitzgerald displays, they'll be moved to pull out their phones and play the song on the spot.

What happened is still a mystery, ever since the last communications from the doomed freighter.

"One time I had the crap scared out of me," Matuszak remembered. "I thought I was completely alone in the museum. It was the middle of winter. Then all of a sudden, the song started playing."

Hayes Scriven, site manager at Split Rock Lighthouse, ventured to put a number on the phenomenon. "Maybe 40% of the people that come by talk about that song and what it means to them," said Scriven. "We'll catch people playing the song on their phone as they're walking around the site, just having their moment with it."

Museum display features diorama of ship on lake floor, broken in two. A painting of a freighter in high seas hangs on wall.
An Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, seen in 2015, shows the ship broken apart at the bottom of Lake Superior with a Coast Guard vessel on the water surface above.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

While "Wreck" wasn't the song that made Lightfoot's name, it was a pivotal release for the Canadian artist. "It probably prolonged my career by about 25 years," Lightfoot told the News Tribune in 2000. By the time of his death, he might have cited an even longer span — he was still playing the song live as recently as last fall.

"You never get tired of playing it," Lightfoot told the News Tribune in 2002, "and the people love to hear it."

Matuszak, a musician herself, was in the audience last summer when Lightfoot performed the song in Minnesota for what would prove to be the last time: a June 20 concert at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.

"There was a lot of songs that the crowd went wild for," Matuszak remembered, "but that's the one that everybody just shut up and stopped moving ... it's a showstopper."

The song, which hit No. 1 in Canada but stalled at No. 2 on Billboard's U.S. pop chart (Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night" blocked its ascent), gave Lightfoot renewed commercial clout. It also, though, produced some headaches for the artist.


As a six-and-a-half-minute song about an actual event, "The Wreck" has been extensively dissected for its deviations from the historical record. Continuing research into the timeline of the events described in song produced a steady stream of questions for the songwriter. "There's been a lot of controversy," Lightfoot told Connect Savannah in 2010. "At times it's gotten quite personal."

In this photo from July 2, 2005, Gordon Lightfoot performs during "Live 8 Canada" in Barrie, Ontario, Canada.
Donald Weber / TNS

Even while writing the song, Lightfoot knew he was courting such controversy, and remained attentive to the concerns of historians and those who knew the deceased sailors. In live performances, he changed a line about "a main hatchway" giving in, after evidence suggested that wasn't what happened.

Despite the inaccuracies, Lightfoot's song helped make the Edmund Fitzgerald one of the most famous shipwrecks of the 20th century. In online search results, it's right up there with the Titanic and the Lusitania. By extension, the song increased the notoriety of Lake Superior as a potentially perilous body of water.

East of Two Harbors, the Split Rock Lighthouse beacon glows at dusk during a 2019 beacon lighting and service recognizing the 44th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Dennis Medjo, the president of the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association, still remembers having the radio on when news of the sinking broke. "It hit Duluth hard, real hard," he remembered. "There was a number of people from Duluth that were related to crewmen."

While Medjo became aware of some locals' complaints that writing a hit song about the tragic shipwreck "wasn't the proper thing to do," he sees "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" as part of a very long tradition.

"There's been a million songs written about a million catastrophes," said Medjo, "and I can't believe for a second that he shouldn't have written that."

People, when they hear it, associate (the song) with the whole Great Lakes area and shipping industry ... how you have to be careful around the lake, because it is a dangerous body of water and we've got to respect it.
Hayes Scriven, site manager, Split Rock Lighthouse

On the 20th anniversary of the ship's sinking, Great Lakes shipwreck historian Jim Marshall told the News Tribune it was apparent that the song had greatly elevated the Edmund Fitzgerald's profile. By comparison, Marshall pointed out that the sinking of the freighter Carl D. Bradley in 1958 in Lake Michigan entailed an even greater loss of life, but is far less widely remembered.

Annual ceremonies marking the Edmund Fitzgerald's loss now take place at venues including Split Rock Lighthouse and, in Michigan, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Over the years, Lightfoot participated in numerous events commemorating the loss.


Museum made of two conjoined white wooden-sided structures with lighthouse and small brick building attached, seen as the sun is low in the sky.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, near the site of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, is popular with visitors who have learned of the wreck through Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 song.
Contributed / Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

In 1995, for example, the artist joined a ceremony at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which holds the ship's actual bell. After it chimed 29 times, once for each sailor lost, Lightfoot himself rang the bell a 30th time in memory of all the other sailors lost at sea.

Corey Adkins, communications/content director at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, met Lightfoot at a similar event in 2015. "He came on Nov. 9, because he didn't want to be the focus of attention," said Adkins. "Just to talk to the family members, and get out of the way when the big ceremony was on Nov. 10."

As in Duluth, Lightfoot's song draws visitors to the Michigan museum. "It's crazy how many people come to the museum that just want to go see the bell and listen to that song," said Adkins. Overall, he said, the song's fame has been a boon to the museum's mission.

Advertisement for Gordon Lightfoot performance at the Duluth Auditorium on Saturday, February 8 at 7:00 and 9:00 p.m., with image of a light-skinned man playing an acoustic guitar.
A poster advertising Gordon Lightfoot's concerts in Duluth on Feb. 8, 1975. Nine months later, the Edmund Fitzgerald would sink and inspire one of the artist's best-known songs.
Contributed / Music Sphere Productions

"It helped open the door to help us and other people tell the story of all the other wrecks out there," said Adkins. "Even though the song is about the Edmund Fitzgerald, it's also helped us make people aware of all these other wrecks, and all these other lives that have been lost on Lake Superior and the Great Lakes."

Split Rock Lighthouse has become associated with the Edmund Fitzgerald through its annual Nov. 10 beacon lighting, an event that resonates with visitors even though the wreck itself happened clear across the lake from the lighthouse — and years after the Split Rock beacon had been decommissioned.

"When you listen to that song, you feel like you're there," said Scriven. "People, when they hear it, associate (the song) with the whole Great Lakes area and shipping industry ... how you have to be careful around the lake, because it is a dangerous body of water and we've got to respect it."

"'Fitzgerald' is a special song," Lightfoot told the Associated Press after the 1995 bell ceremony, "a very dramatic song and it's a great song to perform. We feel inspired every time we do it, and we always do it in a respectful way."

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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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