One known gravesite that embodies the lure of the lake wrecks more fully than any other lies 530 feet below Lake Superior's surface about 17 miles off Whitefish Point. Seemingly everyone living around the lakes can tell you where they were on Nov. 10, 1975, when word spread that the 729-foot freighter Edmund Fitzgerald went down. The death toll of all 29 crewmen was relatively low in the annals of Great Lakes wrecks, but the story packed the elements of a monster mythology: the now-it's-there/now-it's-not disappearance from radar, the loss of all hands, the death of what was once the largest ship on the lakes, the haunting Gordon Lightfoot ballad, the still-unexplained cause of its loss, the knowledge that the crew remains aboard in an icy crypt.
"It's perfect folklore," says Chris Winter, a photographer and writer specializing in Great Lakes maritime subjects.
Frederick Stonehouse says, "Because it was all hands lost in mysterious circumstances, that wreck will continue to haunt us until the Second Coming."
Yet Tom Farnquist, who has visited the wreck numerous times and is a Fitz expert, acknowledges this epic wreck is simply the most dramatic chapter in a tale more than three centuries long. "Thirty-thousand people have died in other shipwrecks on the lakes," he says. "And no one knows a thing about them."
Dennis Hale knew 28 of them. The muscular, 230-pound deck hand boarded the 603-foot freighter Daniel J. Morrell in Detroit in November 1966, leaving his wife the same foreboding promise given by so many mariners to so many anxious spouses over the centuries: One last voyage, then he would give up sailing.
A raging storm soon gripped the Morrell, and the general alarm woke Dennis at 2 a.m. With no time to dress, he ran to the deck. Today, as he recalls the story in a matter-of-fact way honed by many tellings, he says he knew the ship was doomed when he looked at the stern. What did he see? "Very little of the stern."
The Morrell cracked in two within minutes, rivets firing from the deck like bullets as the sliding steel plates sheared them off. Dennis and three shipmates launched into the icy waves aboard a raft. He wore only shorts, a heavy woolen pea coat and a life jacket. The four clung to the raft in darkness, plunging through the center of 30-foot waves and gasping for breath on the other side, only to drink in lungsful of frigid winds howling at 70 mph. At times wishing for either quick rescue or quick death, feeling at others that he could hold on for hours, Dennis rode through the night as his shipmates died one by one.