“I am very concerned with the welfare of the steamer Edmund Fitzgerald. He was right in front of us… He was taking on a small amount of water and none of the upbound ships have passed him. I can see no lights as before and I don’t have him on radar. I just hope he didn’t take a nose dive.”
Captain Bernie Cooper of the SS Arthur M. Anderson to Soo Control
Lake Superior, 19:40 hrs. November 10, 1975
“The captain of the Upper Canada ferry was seen wringing out his socks when spray flooded the floor of the wheelhouse. It was the only ferry in service during the storm…”
“Storm Blows the Area off its Feet”
The Whig Standard, November 11, 1975
[Note: We wish to give credit to Robert Campbell of Grand Ledge, MI, for the Edmund Fitzgerald photo. He took that shot in May, 1975, on the St. Marys River.]
Late afternoon on November 10, 1975, a very worried lake captain reluctantly picked up the mike attached to his marine radio and with a glance to his mates, expressed his fears out loud to the coast guard station at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
All afternoon, rolling hard in the heavy seas, the two big American freighters , the Arthur M. Anderson and the Edmund Fitzgerald hugged the north Canadian shore of Lake Superior trying to seek shelter in a tumultuous storm of confused seas and blinding snow. The Edmund Fitzgerald, running ahead, had lost both radar scanners sometime earlier and had asked the Anderson for help in plotting her course and position. She had also developed a bad list which had really concerned her captain, Ernest McSorley.
Now, standing up and trying to steady himself to the violent motion of his own ship, Captain Bernie Cooper strained his eyes through his pilothouse windows then walked carefully back to his radar set adjusting the gain, praying for a target. “She’s got to be there,” he said out loud to his mates. “Dear God… she has to be!”
At about the same time, and about seven hundred miles or three lakes down, the captain of the Wolfe Island ferry Upper Canada braced himself against the pilothouse door and lifted one soggy foot over the sill followed by the other. Soaked from his knees down, Captain Wayne Eves was also drenched from the waist up. The small pilothouse windows, tightly closed, did little to keep Lake Ontario out, in fact, Captain Eves was sure a good portion of it was still sloshing about almost knee deep in the small confined space he shared with his mate, Dick Kingsley.
Tied to the Kingston dock at the end of Brock Street the small ferry was still pitching a little at the bow, tugging on her lines, waiting for her next trip across. Looking down on the car deck, Wayne called down to his engineer, “Hey Johnny, have you got a drill?”
The car deck too, was ankle deep with water still running hard out of the scuppers. Several cars, especially those parked up in the bow, also had water pouring out of every nook and cranny that it had managed to seep into as their wide-eyed and white-knuckled drivers drove carefully off, one actually making the sign of the cross on himself as he crossed over the ramp.
Taking off his shoes, Wayne stuck them up on a shelf in the wheelhouse and, rolling up his pants, pulled off his socks, wrung them out and stuck them inside his damp shoes.
“At one point, somewhere around seven o’clock, the weather got really nasty,” he remembered. “I was steering well above the Kingston Shipyard heading out of the harbour when the waves started breaking over the starboard bow sending heavy spray clear over the wheelhouse!” Sailing the Great Lakes since he was fifteen years old, Captain Eves couldn’t remember the last time the lake got so violent.
Up on Division Street in Kingston, a frantic mother listened as the howling wind blew garbage cans, papers and anything else not nailed down across her front lawn. Even the trees bent, bowed and swayed in a crazy dance with one another as the wind shrieked higher and higher. Not knowing what else to do, Mrs. Holland picked up her phone and dialed the Kingston Police.
“My son Steve,” she began, trying to calm down, “is on Wolfe Island. I mean, I hope he’s on Wolfe Island. He and two friends went over to go duck hunting last night, somewhere on Big Bay. They were supposed to come home at noon… it’s now half past seven…”
. . . . . . . . . . .
It was as if Mother Nature unleashed a pack of howling banshees…
Truck blown off freeway… Power is off for four hours… Buses collide… Farm animals were killed, one ferry broke down, a bus shelter overturned and trees were uprooted…
Ontario Hydro crews were working on five households, three on hard-hit Wolfe Island…
Mild, summer like weather continued into the second weekend of November in 1975. Saturday’s Whig Standard pictured a couple enjoying a tranquil afternoon in their canoe paddling along the Lake Ontario shoreline just outside the harbour limits. On Sunday evening, November 9, three teenage boys had made up their mind to try their luck at duck hunting off the south shore of Wolfe Island, as the predicted weather called for cloudy skies with some wind.
“Perfect duck hunting weather,” Harry Heikkila recalled. One of the boys, 19 year old Richard Vaugn had already called in sick for his job on Monday morning so he could join his two buddies on this great outdoor adventure.
“We’re going to get a good storm,” he said, loading his stuff into the car. Steve Holland, also 19, was the third. Catching the ten o’clock boat from town, the trio made their way over to Carpenter Point where they would camp out and get an early start. By morning, dark, ominous clouds were rolling in from the lake as the boys set out their decoys. “Around noon it got bad,” Harry Heikkila said. “You could see the front coming in. I was in a canoe about a hundred feet off shore.”
About four miles away, on the north side of Wolfe Island, Captain Lewis Kiell was having his own problems with the older ferry Wolfe Islander. Giving her all she had, it took several minutes for the huge bow to swing out into the open channel into the ever increasing seaway rapidly building up. Both ferries were using the winter dock at Dawson Point on the island because the dock in the village was now modified, awaiting the arrival of the new Wolfe Islander III which would depart any day now from the builders yard in Port Arthur on Lake Superior.
Swinging the telegraph handle to full ahead, Captain Kiell called down to the engine room for more power, knowing full well what would happen if the bow of the ferry started to fall off the wind. It had happened to him just a few years ago, finally coming to anchor at the foot of the island in a moderate gale, and before that, in 1950, to Captain Joe Sisty, when everyone thought she had gone down.
Rolling heavily, the Wolfe Islander finally made it safely into Kingston harbour after more than an hour. By now the wind had increased, with the seas building anywhere from six to eight feet.
A spokesman for the Kingston Weather Office said there were no records kept of wind velocity, but that the peak wind was only 13 miles below hurricane velocity of 75 mph.
Captain Lewis Kiell decided to tie the Wolfe Islander up for the remainder of the storm at Brock Street. It was decided that Captain Eves would continue service with the Upper Canada into the sheltered dock in the village as she could manoeuvre into position using her twin engines to advantage. Deckhand Eric Ahrenkiel left the Wolfe Islander and joined the Upper Canada to assist. It was now about six o’clock in the evening.
“Coming alongside in the village, we had one chance to get a line on,” remembered mate Dick Kingsley. “If we missed, we’d have gone aground. And if one of her engines failed for any reason while we were crossing, well…”
“The danger was stirring up the fuel tank,” engineer John O’Shea said. “If the fuel filters became clogged, then we’d have problems.”
By now, the power was out on Wolfe Island. Captain Eves was landing his ship by radar, spotlight and sheer guts. Then Larry Staley showed up with his loaded cattle truck. Unable to persuade him to wait until morning, the truck was loaded aboard, the wheels were chocked and the brakes were set. Backing out, Wayne swung hard to starboard and set out for Kingston.
Clearing the bay at Garden Island Wayne directed his searchlight out into the blackness to check sea conditions. “The wind was pulling the tops right off the waves in spindrifts,” he said. “I was aiming somewhere up near Portsmouth harbour so I could turn quick about halfway across trying to keep the rolling to a minimum. Honestly, it was as rough as any seaway I’ve ever been in.”
Down below on the car deck, Larry and his ‘girls’ were hanging on to anything their hands and hooves could cling to. White knuckled, Staley kept his foot jammed on the brakes as the huge truck skidded across the deck, banging into one post then the other, as the ‘girls’ bawled their protests in unison all the way across.
Just south, duck hunters Heikkila, Vaugn and Holland were in trouble. By now, their decoys were all over the bay and probably the eastern half of Lake Ontario. Trying to recover their decoys, the boys almost became disoriented in the darkness with the heavy rain and wind. Harry, up to his neck in the rapidly rising water, decided to strike out for nearby Mud Island which seemed closer. Wolfe Island had all but disappeared in the darkness.
“Richard couldn’t swim so he stayed with the canoe,” Holland recalled. “We lost sight of the shoreline so we headed to Mud Island. Gus Brown had a small cottage and they let us in. Later, about one in the morning a rescue helicopter was overhead with a bright light shining down on the cabin. There was a guy being lowered by a wire. ‘Need any help’ he said and I said ‘no, we’re okay’ and they left.”
Captain Wayne Eves and the crew of the Upper Canada got through the night without any further incident. Morning finally came lighting the roadways with fallen trees and downed power lines almost everywhere. Three soggy boys drove onto the ferry embarrassed but happy to have come through their ordeal. Local radio stations throughout the Great Lakes were reporting their damages to their respective cities and towns with almost the same stories of power failures and minor accidents.
By mid morning one particular story was making headlines. A fully loaded ore carrier was reported missing up on Lake Superior. By day’s end it was almost certain that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald with all 29 of her crew had perished in the storm.
By early December, a twin stacked barge-like vessel appeared on Lake Superior approaching the area of Whitefish Bay. The brand new Wolfe Islander III was headed downbound for Lake Ontario to begin her life as Wolfe Island’s newest and by far largest ferry.
Searching for survivors of the Edmund Fitzgerald had all but ceased by now. It had been confirmed that the freighter had gone down with all hands. Her position on the bottom of Lake Superior just outside the sheltered area of Whitefish Bay was also known. I asked Captain Leon Fawcett who was a deckhand on the trip if anyone looked over the side as they went over the area. “No,” he replied, “I don’t think anyone did. We just quietly went on our way.”
Thirty years later, her sudden disappearance from the radar set of the Arthur M Anderson still remains a mystery.
Brian Johnson, Captain, Wolfe Islander III, President, Wolfe Island Historical Society
Brian Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for 28 years, recently celebrating 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and current president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.
Brian is a regular contributor for TI Life. "The Great Gale of '75" was first published November 12, 2005 in the Kingston Whig-Standard. He is also hard at work putting the finishing touches on his first book: Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island.