Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
The Fitzgeralds: Ships and Men
The Fitzgeralds: Ships and Men
The story of the William E. Fitzgerald bulk carrier begins with William and Julia Fitzgerald of Marine City, Michigan, the center of an active wooden shipbuilding industry in the late 19th century. Julia and William had six sons who were fascinated with the wooden sailing ships and early steamboats on the St. Clair River which joins the Belle River at Marine City. The six Fitzgerald brothers all became captains on Great Lakes ships. Julia and William’s youngest son, John Fitzgerald was a lake captain who started a shipyard on the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The yard was located on the south bank of the Menomonee River near the Sixth Street bridge. John’s son William E. Fitzgerald (1859-1901) took over his father’s business, the Milwaukee Shipyard Company in the 1890s.
In 1863, a group of 12 ships’ carpenters cooperated to start a shipyard that they called Milwaukee Shipyard, and they operated it until 1867 when Allan, McClellan & Company acquired it. In 1874, Captain John Fitzgerald bought the business and incorporated it as Milwaukee Shipyard Company. In 1894, Milwaukee Shipyard Company merged with Wolf & Davidson as Milwaukee Dry Dock Company. Milwaukee Dry Dock Company didn’t build ships, but concentrated instead on ship repair.
Captain John Fitzgerald’s son William E. Fitzgerald, had a close friend Captain Dennis Sullivan of Wyandotte, Michigan. In 1906, Captain Dennis Sullivan built and christened the bulk propeller W.E. Fitzgerald in Wyandotte to honor his friend. The Detroit Ship Building Company in Wyandotte built the William E. Fitzgerald as Hull #167 for the Chicago Navigation Company in Chicago. She was launched on September 8, 1906, and she entered service in October 1906.
Perhaps as a prophecy of things to come, the William E. Fitzgerald didn’t always enjoy smooth sailing on the Great Lakes. On December 14, 1926, she got caught in heavy seas outside of Port Arthur, Ontario and suffered damage to her frames and hull plating. Many of her hull plates were repaired and 25,000 rivets replaced at Superior, Wisconsin.
In 1928, Boom Electric Welding Company in Cleveland converted her to a scraper type self- unloader. Her conversion didn’t keep her from rough seas. On November 25, 1930, she ran aground in the Livingstone Channel in the Detroit River, and on August 28, 1931, she got stuck in the mud in the Saginaw River.
In 1932, Gartland Steamship Company of Chicago bought the William E. Fitzgerald, and later that year she earned the distinction of being the first U.S. self- unloader to use the 4th Welland Canal. She struck the Lake St. Bridge in Chicago twice, once in 1939 and again in 1952.
In 1969, the American Steamship Company bought the W.E. Fitzgerald, but she never sailed for them. Instead, she laid up until October 1971, when the tugs Herbert A. and G.W. Rogers towed her to Ramey’s Bend. The tow arrived October 21, 1971 and the W.E. Fitzgerald was scrapped in Humberstone, Ontario over the winter of 1971-1972. 
The Fitzgerald ship saga continued into the next generations even after William E. Fitzgerald died and the ship William E. Fitzgerald had been scrapped into maritime history. William E. Fitzgerald’s son Edmund Bacon Fitzgerald (1895-1986) was the chairmen of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company in Milwaukee when it financed the building of the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and christened it for him.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was built and assembled at Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse and River Rouge, Michigan, and lunched on June 7, 1958 in River Rouge. The 729 foot , eight million dollar ore carrier was the largest on the Great Lakes at the time of her launch. Edmund’s wife Elizabeth christened the massive iron ore freighter, whacking it three times before her champagne bottle broke over its bow.
Ironically, Lake Superior claimed the ship that had been named for William E. Fitzgerald’s son Edmund on November 10, 1975, about three years after the ship that had been named for him was scrapped. The Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a Lake Superior storm 17 miles north of Whitefish Bay. All 29 crew members went down with the ship. Why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank is still debated into the 21st Century, and she and her crew are still remembered and mourned, thanks in part of the ballad by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Edmund Bacon Fitzgerald’s son Edmund B. Fitzgerald or “Young Ed”, was born in 1926 and died in 2013. Although he had accomplished much in his life, including bringing major league baseball back to Milwaukee, and becoming a successful executive at Cutler Hammer, the legacy of the Edmund Fitzgerald was never far from his mind. He once said that the launch of the Edmund Fitzgerald, witnessed by a crowd of 15,000 , was the happiest day of his father’s life. And the day of the wreck, when 25 foot waves and near hurricane force winds roiled Lake Superior and sank the Edmund Fitzgerald was “probably the worst day of my father’s life.”
The William E. Fitzgerald; W.E. FITZGERALD Built September 8, 1906 Bulk propeller -- Steel U.S. No. 203561 4940 gt - 3701 nt 420' x 52.2' x 29' Converted to self-unloader in 1928. Scrapped at Humberstone, Ont., winter, 1971-1972. Detroit/Wyandotte Master Shipbuilding List, Institute for Great Lakes research, Perrysburg, Ohio.
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.