Sampler Series to explore 'Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' March 19

Submitted by McHenry County Historical Society
Updated 3/13/2018 8:16 PM
  • A limited edition print, "Every Man Knew," by David Conklin featuring the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. Learn about "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" during the next Sampler Series on Monday, March 19.

    A limited edition print, "Every Man Knew," by David Conklin featuring the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. Learn about "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" during the next Sampler Series on Monday, March 19. Courtesy of Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

… When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'

Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya

At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in, he said

Fellas, it's been good t'know ya

The captain wired in he had water comin' in

And the good ship and crew was in peril

And later that night when his lights went outta sight

Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald …

-- "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot

UNION -- Rochelle Pennington credits the timing, more than anything, for interest in arguably the most celebrated shipwreck of the Great Lakes.

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which dove deep into our collective memory just over 40 years ago, still affects us. It certainly had an effect on Rochelle Pennington.

The historical researcher from Kewaskum, Wis., will present "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" at 7 p.m. Monday, March 19, at the McHenry County Historical Museum, 6422 Main St. in Union.

It is part of the McHenry County Historical Society's 32nd annual Sampler Lecture Series.

"I found the connection that people have to Gordon Lightfoot's song was really extraordinary," she said. "It made by job easier in many ways because it was recent. I was able to get ahold of many of the locals, who remembered what the storm was like or who were on the (trailing) ship."

Conceived as a business enterprise of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee, the 729-foot freighter was named after the company's president and chairman. When the 13,632-ton vessel was launched on June 8, 1958, in River Rouge, Mich., she was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. And the Fitzgerald retained that title until 1971.

On the afternoon of Nov. 9, 1975, the Fitzgerald set off from Superior, Wis. with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets in her hold. She soon was soon joined by S.S. Arthur M. Anderson, a 640-foot cargo ship that had left Two Harbors, Minn. It's captain, Bernie Cooper, soon struck up radio contact with Capt. Ernest M. McSorely aboard the Fitzgerald.

Before long the duo were being battered by 18- to 25-foot waves and winds reaching 80 miles per hour. The wind and waves from the west, hit the freighter broadside as it made for Whitefish Bay and safety.

Superior, by surface area, is the world's largest freshwater lake, spanning 31,700 square miles. It is about 350 miles long, 160 miles wide and drops to a depth of 1,300 feet.

"For me, the driving force behind my attention and my efforts is my love of Lake Superior," said Pennington, who has written 10 books. "As part of the program we take a circle tour of Lake Superior. We see the sites the men onboard ship saw. That is a powerful piece."

Nearly five hours into the ferocious storm, the Fitzgerald and her crew of 29 disappeared from the Anderson's radar. During a 1980 diving expedition into Lake Superior, marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau) conducted the first submersible dive to the Fitzgerald. That team concluded she had broken up on the surface.

But that, along with pretty everything else connected with the Fitzgerald, remains in dispute.

"As is the case with anything, opinions vary and opinions are strongly held. There are a grab bag full of theories," Pennington said. "Some say she hit a shoal and then was taken down by two or three massive waves. I break the thing down and allow my audience members to decided what did or did not happen."

Upcoming Sampler programs include:

• 3 p.m. Monday, April 2 -- "From Our Own Back Yard: A Woman Empowered." Presented by Craig Pfannkuche, a retired history teacher and genealogical researcher from Wonder Lake. McHenry County was the home of a goodly number of women who made a difference in American history. One of them was Lillian Donovan, a Harvard resident who befriended Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later was appointed as a federal revenue collector in Chicago when Roosevelt became president in 1933. Learn about this interesting woman and her connection to one of the world's most influential leaders.

• 7 p.m. Monday, April 16 -- "How Corn Changed itself and Then Changed Everything Else." Presented by Cynthia Clampitt, an author and food historian from Palatine. About 10,000 years ago, a weedy grass growing in Mexico that possessed a strange trait known as a "jumping gene" transformed itself into a larger and more useful plant: the cereal grass that we would come to know as maize and then as corn. Illinois is second only to Iowa, as an American corn-growing state. And McHenry County outpaces all other collar counties in corn production. Illinois and corn are inexorably linked, yet few realize its historic impact and why it remains so vital today. Made possible by a grant from Illinois Humanities.

A $10 donation is requested for individual programs, all of which are at the county history museum. For information, call (815) 923-2267 or visit