In a musty old hall in Detroit…

Wednesday of this week marked the 34th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, lost with all hands in a Lake Superior storm in 1975.  The iron ore freighter has always held a special place in my thoughts (and those of many Midwesterners) due to many summers spent along the shores of the Great Lakes, in Minnesota’s Iron Range, watching the ore boats travel underneath Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge – after grabbing lunch at Grandma’s.

Watching the big boats slide out of Duluth’s harbor, bound for the industrial ports of Detroit, Gary, Cleveland, or Toledo was quite a sight.  The notion that one could sink simply boggles the mind.

Adding to the legend, this regional Titanic tale, was Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad – forever immortalizing the lives of the 29th who perished.

Between summer weeks up along Minnesota’s North Shore and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as two years of living in the heart of Michigan’s industrial core, you begin to gain a great appreciation of the full industrial process.  From the iron ore strip mines in northern Minnesota, the ore travels by train to the Lake Superior ports – Duluth, Superior, Two Harbors, Taconite Harbor – where it’s loaded onto ore boats, who take it through the Soo, bound for the industrial cities of the Midwest.  The boats would bring the raw materials to a foundry, where the taconite would be turned to steel.

Images of Zug Island and Ford’s Rouge Plant from Hilarywho on Flickr

Seeing the process, even if only in bits and pieces, of raw materials harvested from the land, then turned into machinery for our use and consumption is a powerful story.  So too is the decline of that process, whether through the closure of a steel mill or a taconite mine – and the costs of the process, ranging from environmental damage to the human losses of a sunken ship.

It’s interesting to contrast the different legs of the journey – from the mines and the woods to Detroit (no stranger to hard times).  Gordon Lightfoot’s song specifically mentions a spiritual center of the journey from raw material to finished product – the Mariners’ Church (referred to with poetic license as the “Maritime Sailor’s Cathedral”).

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed, ’til it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Mariners Church - Wikipedia

Mariners' Church - Wikipedia

The structure itself is nestled between signs of Detroit’s promise and decay – the historic structure now stripped of any surrounding urban fabric, sitting in the shadow of the RenCen and wrapped up by the entrance ramps to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

I don’t really have anything in particular to say – just sharing a bit of my connection to the ship, the song, the church, the lakes, and the city – woven together by industry, transport, and culture.  Having spent time on those lakes and in those cities, it’s always a fascinating story for me.

It seemed fitting to talk of a November storm as we’re stuck in our current deluge.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call “Gitche Gumee.”
“Superior,” they said, “never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early.”

4 comments to In a musty old hall in Detroit…

  • I grew up outside of Chicago, my mother’s family has been in Oakland County, Michigan since the 19th century. She herself grew up in Chicago and Minneapolis, and went to college in Michigan like her brothers and sisters and father. I’ve summered on lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin. And I still go to Michigan every summer. Canoed the boundary waters. Hell, I’ve been to Duluth. Duluth! Who the hell has been to Duluth? And only somehow learned about the Fitzgerald this week; I’m seriously miffed about this lacking in my Great Lakes education. Like I seriously missed something here. I’m definitely complaining to someone back home.

  • Alex Block

    I’ve been to Duluth. Many times. Hanging out in Canal Park, hiking up to Enger Tower, crossing the lift bridge out to Minnesota Point, climbing hills that would fit in San Francisco – you name it. Great town. It’s got that industrial, port vibe that’s hard to find in Minnesota – plus the natural beauty of the great lakes.

  • Ben

    Great piece! Born and raised in Detroit, and now living in Toronto, Gordie’s take on the Edmund Fitzgerald always resonates me. As a bonus I get to check Gordie out next week in concert.

  • [...] right up to the edge of Ford’s massive Rouge complex. This above-ground landscape has some fascinating visuals, particularly as it ages but remains in [...]

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