Titanic exhibit stirs memories of Edmund Fitzgerald - 13abc.com Toledo (OH) News, Weather and Sports

Titanic exhibit stirs memories of Edmund Fitzgerald

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The Titanic is one of the most talked about shipwrecks in history and Imagination Station is hosting an exhibit featuring artifacts from the luxury liner through mid-June. While we know what sent the Titanic to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald remains one of the greatest mysteries of the Great Lakes. The iron ore freighter was the biggest and the best of its day, but in 1975 it sank in Lake Superior. Seven men on board were from Northwest Ohio and the ship made a lot of trips to the Port of Toledo. 13abcs Lissa Guyton has covered the story for more than twenty years and she spoke with a local man who has a lot of connections to the "Big Fitz."

Tom Walton is the retired editor of The Toledo Blade. During college he spent a summer working on board the Fitzgerald. His father also spent time on the Fitz as the Chief Engineer and his uncle was one of the 29 men who went down with the ship. The Edmund Fitzgerald was making its last trip of the season when it sailed into the history books. Today Tom is working to keep the memory of the men on board the ill fated freighter alive.

When she was christened in 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald became the biggest ship to ever sail the Great Lakes. Tom Walton was a porter on board the Mighty Fitz in the summer of 1963, "I still have very clear mental images of my quarters, the galley, the passenger state rooms. I can still see it all like it was yesterday, you never forget." Even though the Fitzgerald was a freighter, Walton says it had a lot in common with the Titanic, "Each ship was the queen of her day. In the case of the Titanic she was queen of the ocean. She was the biggest, fastest, strongest and the newest ship. The Fitz was the best on the Great Lakes." Unlike the Titanic, the Big Fitz sailed for years. The 729 foot freighter set record after record including most iron ore carried in a single trip and most carried in a season, "One of her nicknames was the Toledo Express because she would carry 26,000 tons of taconite iron ore pellets between the mines of Minnesota to Toledo every five days. She set tonnage records every year."  On November 10, 1975 she carried her crew to the bottom of Lake Superior. One of the worst storms in history was pounding the lake that night with winds blowing more than 90 miles and hour and waves topping 30 feet. The freighter sank without a call for help, "They didn't have time to even say they were in terrible trouble. They were simply gone and it must have happened in a matter of seconds."

Tom was working as a newspaper editor in California when he saw a story on the evening news about a missing Great Lakes freighter, "Knowing that there were not many freighters out there that late in the season with the bad weather I wondered if it was the Fitz and I found out soon enough that indeed it was."

Captain Ernest McSorley was from Ottawa Hills  and six of the crew members were from Northwest Ohio including Tom's uncle, Ralph Grant Walton, "He was a gregarious man he loved being out on the water. I take it as a personal challenge to keep the memory of my uncle and all the men alive." Tom's father also spent time as the Chief Engineer on the Fitz more than a decade before the ill fated run, "My Dad retired within a year of the wreck at a relatively young age because he'd lost his brother. He'd also lost his love and enthusiasm for what he was doing. It affected him profoundly."

Nearly forty years later there are still so many questions about the tragedy and so few clues to help unravel the mystery. Walton says Captain McSorley and the crew were the best sailing the lakes and they did the best they could under the circumstances, "The Fitz was riding low in the water, fully loaded and I believe the bow was pushed downward in the storm. I think the engines kept doing their job, pushing forward and the bow went under and couldn't recover buoyancy and she broke into three parts on the way down. It was a perfect storm as they say. A lot of factors had to come together and they did. I guess it's amazing that other ships weren't taken down in that storm."

The probe into the tragedy was the most extensive maritime investigation in Great Lakes history but there was never a ruling on the cause. The Edmund Fitzgerald was named after the President of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, the company that owned the Fitz when she was built. A relative of his lives in the Toledo area and she says he was never the same after the ship went down. The Fitzgerald sank in Canadian waters and after many years of work by the families, the Canadian government has deemed the wreckage a grave site, making it off limits to divers.

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