June 7, 1958: River Rouge, Michigan

A look back in time at the launching of one of the most famous ships in history.
Many people familiar with the Edmund Fitzgerald know it only for its sinking and the Gordon Lightfoot song (and beer) it inspired. But the ship was born in the shipyards of Great Lakes Engineering in River Rouge, Michigan.

The Fitz was commissioned by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co. and named for its chairman of the board. When it was launched sideways into the Detroit River on June 7, 1958, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes, measuring 729 feet — just a foot smaller than the locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Thousands turned out on land and on sea. Milwaukee Sentinel columnist H.E. Jamison recalled that “no less than 400 of Detroit’s pleasure fleet jammed the milewide river.”

The $8 million ship was 39 feet deep and 75 feet wide, with cargo capacity for 26,000 tons. The crew quarters were luxurious by freighter standards, with two sailors to a room — each with its own bathroom — and guestrooms furnished by J.L. Hudson, the Detroit department store.

Coal boilers could get the ship up to a top speed around 16 knots, and it also had the most owners — the more than 1 million people who held Northwestern Mutual policies.
After sea testing on Lake Erie, the Fitz became the only ship on the Great Lakes to claim Milwaukee as its home port, but most of its travel was from Ohio up to Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for iron ore, its primary cargo. In fact, it was operated by Oglebay Norton Co. of Cleveland.

The ship met its demise in a storm on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, lost with all 29 crew members aboard. Its namesake lived another 11 years.