On the 25th of March, we took a miserable farewell of our distressed brethren, the heart of every one being so overloaded with his own misery as to have little room to pity another.—"Preservation of Nine Men," Interesting and Authentic Narratives of the Most Remarkable Shipwrecks, 1835
On the 8th of November, 1975, a storm forms in Oklahoma and begins moving northeast, picking up speed and intensity. The next day, it passes over Kansas City, over the older suburb of Mission on the Kansas side of the state line, over a brown house on Nall Avenue where my parents, Tom and Kathie Rafferty, live. Maybe my mother, 25 years old and six months pregnant with her first child—me—looks up at the darkening sky and worries. Maybe she feels me moving inside her, pushing her abdomen outwards, growing and moving each day. Maybe she stays inside the entire day, unaware of the system passing overhead, not knowing or even caring where it comes from or where it will go.
Ships are certainly far from her mind on this day in Kansas City. She and my father rarely cross the Missouri River, the only major body of water for hundreds of miles. The storm will pass over her, my father, and me, and move onwards, growing and moving toward Iowa and Wisconsin. Two days after it forms, the storm will arrive at the Great Lakes, bringing with it heavy rains and gale-force winds, all the power it has carried since its birth in Oklahoma. [End Page 17] Not long after the storm passes over us, it will strike down 29 men, drowning them in their ship in the middle of the largest lake in the Western Hemisphere, leaving their bodies floating inside the ship, still wrapped in their lifejackets. Then it will continue over Canada, its power fading, until it dissipates, vanishes into the thin air from which it formed.
Whitefish Point is, quite literally, the end of the road. At the town of Paradise, Michigan State Highway 123 turns westward toward Tahquamenon Falls State Park, and a Chippewa County road, marked as a thin gray line on the state map, continues northward until it ends in the parking lot of Whitefish Point's biggest tourist attraction, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The coast of Lake Superior is just a few yards away.
I have traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to see a monument that I cannot see: the memorial to the 29 men who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald when it sank in a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. Twenty years later, divers 17 miles off of Whitefish Point brought up the ship's bell, polished off two decades of rust so that it gleamed again, and hung it as the centerpiece of the museum's collection.
But they realized that in removing that bell, they would leave an absence in the ship's wreckage, and they refused to disturb the grave. So they cast another bell, the same shape and size as the Fitzgerald's original, and engraved the names of the men who died on it. Then, after the first bell had been brought up, they lowered down the new bell, and divers with acetylene torches welded it in place.
It's there still, accessible only to divers willing to expose themselves to Lake Superior's killing chill. I stand on the shore of Lake Superior in the cold wind of July and look out on choppy water, trying to guess where, 17 miles north, a memorial sits fixed for the ages 535 feet underwater, a memorial that truly was, as the inscription says but never means, for the dead. I think about the 30,000 people dead in shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, about the 29 men who'd died when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, and of one man in particular: the ship's steward, an Ohio native named Robert Rafferty.
On the 9th of November, 1975, the Fitzgerald, a 729-foot-long cargo vessel, took on just over 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, a low-grade iron ore, at the docks in Superior...