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Driven to keep Edmund Fitzgerald crewman's memory afloat

Jun 11, 2018 08:06AM ● By Editor

A 1974 Dodge Challenger owned by a 22-year-old crewman of the Edmund Fitzgerald is displayed in the parking lot at 50 North. Dave Laube of Findlay bought the car some 30 years after the freighter famously sank and is dedicated to keeping the memory of its young owner, Bruce Hudson, alive. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

By Sara Arthurs of The Chronicle - June 11, 2018

Dave Laube didn’t know Bruce Hudson, but the Findlay man is committed to keeping the memory of the late Edmund Fitzgerald crewman alive.

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was a freighter that sank during a storm on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975. The ship carried taconite iron ore from mines at the far end of Lake Superior to Detroit or Toledo, and many of its crew were from northwestern Ohio.

Laube, of Findlay, owns a car that belonged to Bruce Hudson, which he displayed following a 50 North presentation by Ellen Kennedy, education manager at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo. The 1974 Dodge Challenger was purchased by the young crewman not long before he set sail on the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final voyage, and Laube came across the car some 30 years later at a car show.

Believing “cars were meant to be driven,” Laube drives Hudson’s car around Findlay. He also takes the old Challenger to car shows, with a plaque detailing its history. He said “anybody that has gray hair” tends to stop in their tracks upon seeing it.

Laube also has a Zippo lighter that belonged to Hudson, which was found in the car. Hudson and another shipmate planned to drive to California upon returning to port. Their suitcases were packed and the car was ready to go.

On display at 50 North were the lighter and other artifacts related to the ship, including photographs, two pieces of iron ore taconite and a copy of “Gales of November: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Robert J. Hemming.

“The memory of Bruce Hudson will live on,” Laube said.

A dark and stormy night

The Edmund Fitzgerald was 729 feet long, 75 feet wide and 39 feet from keel to top of deck. It traveled more than 1 million miles, or the equivalent of 44 times around the globe, Kennedy said.

Its 1958 launch was “a spectator event,” drawing a crowd of thousands, Kennedy said. It was said to be so dramatic, in fact, that a spectator had a heart attack. Also “ominous” was that it took the wife of the ship’s namesake three tries to break the Champagne bottle used for the ship’s christening.

The ship had accidents before its wreck, including grounding at the Soo Locks in 1969. And its bow anchor fell off in the Detroit River a year before the ship was lost.

Capt. Ernest M. McSorley, from the Toledo area, had a 44-year career sailing oceans and lakes. He took over the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1972. He was planning to retire at the end of the 1975 season.

On Nov. 9, 1975, the crew loaded more than 26,000 tons of iron ore in Superior, Wisconsin. They knew there was a storm threat, but it was not supposed to strike Lake Superior itself. Some ships did not sail because of the weather, but McSorley decided to go out, as did Capt. Bernie Cooper of the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson. The two ships decided to stick close together, in case either needed help.

It wasn’t until 2 a.m. on the 10th of November that a storm warning was issued. The ships were taking a slightly different route because of the weather, hugging the shore of Lake Superior. The winds blew at 60 mph, and seas were 10 feet, Kennedy said. Visibility was just 2 to 4 miles and the crews of the Anderson and the Fitzgerald couldn’t see each other.

At 3:35 p.m., McSorley reported that the Edmund Fitzgerald had sustained damage, including a bad list, meaning it was taking on water somewhere and was no longer level. He asked the Anderson to shadow his ship, and reduced his speed.

By 4:10, there was more damage. Neither radar unit was operating. The Edmund Fitzgerald asked the Anderson to help navigate the way into Whitefish Bay, between Michigan and Ontario, Canada.

The National Weather Service had advised seeking shelter but, at the speed they were going, it would have taken several hours to reach Whitefish, Kennedy said. And although the ship had been damaged, McSorley seemed to believe they could make it. Later, however, he told another ship that they were taking on water, and that these were the worst seas he had ever sailed in.

At 7:10, the Anderson radioed for an update, “And McSorley replied that, ‘We are holding our own,'” Kennedy said.

Those were the last words heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Ten minutes later, the Anderson crew realized they couldn’t see the Edmund Fitzgerald. They tried to establish communication, and failed. They notified the Coast Guard, which asked if the Anderson would be willing to go back and look for survivors. They were joined early the next morning by another ship, the William Clay Ford. Later on the 11th, other ships as well as a Coast Guard aircraft joined the search. They found only debris, which the Coast Guard collected for its investigation.

On Nov. 14, using a type of giant metal detector and a plane, they located the ship itself, Kennedy said. It was just over the Canadian border, 17 miles from Whitefish Bay. While they were able to detect something large and metal at the bottom of the lake, it wasn’t until 1976 that they officially confirmed it was the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Divers attempted to study the sunken ship, but it was too deep. The Navy used small submarines and, in the 1990s, a “newt suit,” essentially a person-shaped submarine. But the newt suits didn’t allow divers to go into the ship’s hold or engine room, making it harder to know exactly what happened, Kennedy said.

Divers discovered that the ship had broken apart, the bow sinking upright and the stern upside-down.

In 1995, the ship’s bell was recovered. The bell is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Michigan. As part of an agreement with the Canadian government, divers replaced the bell with a reproduction, inscribed with the names of all 29 crew.

No remains were ever found.

Kennedy said there are a lot of theories as to why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, and her museum does not take a position.

The Coast Guard initially put the fault on the hatch cover system, suggesting either the system itself failed or the hatches were not adequately clamped, so water leaked in through the hatches. The National Transportation Safety Board believed the hatches collapsed, rather than leaking, as the quick sinking indicated something catastrophic, Kennedy said.

Another theory is that the ship had sustained damage at Six Fathom Shoal. And some believe there was a structural problem with the steel itself, and perhaps the ship broke apart before it sank.

The National Museum of the Great Lakes has on display the sounding board and inflatable life rafts from the Edmund Fitzgerald. It’s located at 1701 Front St. in Toledo.

Joined by fate

Laube saw the Edmund Fitzgerald itself when he was 10 years old. It was immense and, when it sank, northwestern Ohio was badly affected by the loss, he said.

“The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald goes on and on and on,” he said.

Later, as a student at Findlay High School, he read “Gales of November.” It’s partly fictionalized, but tells the story of what area families went through, Laube said.

The book tells of a crew member named Bruce Hudson, who at 22 was one of the youngest sailing on the ship’s final voyage. The book mentioned that Hudson had bought a 1974 Dodge Challenger not long before the ship sank.

Hudson was the ship’s keeper, meaning he was tasked with staying on the ship over the winter when it wasn’t sailing to keep an eye on it. He had created a space for himself, with a television and a stereo, Laube said.

About 2005, Laube came across a 1974 Dodge Challenger at a car show that had very few miles on it for its age. He asked the seller about it and learned that it had belonged to Hudson.

“The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Laube said.

After acquiring the car, he got in touch with Hudson’s mother, Ruth. “Does it run?” she asked. He told her yes, and that he was taking care of it. He later met with her several times.

Ruth served as a spokeswoman for the families after the shipwreck, and was involved in getting both the United States and Canadian governments to pass a bill declaring it a gravesite. After calling officials in both countries regularly, “She said her phone bill was astronomical,” Laube said.

Ruth died at age 90 in November 2015, one day before the 40th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. She lived in the Cleveland suburb of North Olmsted at the time of her death. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s report of her death included this: “‘That time before he shipped out with the Fitzgerald we talked about many things,’ Hudson told a reporter 10 years ago. ‘Somehow, we ended up talking about the danger of his motorcycle riding. I remember he said he would never die on the motorcycle. He said when he died, it would be in a way that the whole world would know it.'”


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