Time Machine

TIME MACHINE: Edmund Fitzgerald - the ill-fated ship bore name of insurance company president

Edmund Fitzgerald, president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee, stands in front of the 7,500-to
Edmund Fitzgerald, president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee, stands in front of the 7,500-ton freighter that was named in his honor. The ship launched in 1958 and sank Nov. 10, 1975, during a storm on Lake Superior, claiming the lives of 29 crew members. To this date, it remains the largest ship to sink in the lake. (Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.)

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a 729-foot freighter plying the Great Lakes for 17 years before it sank Nov. 10, 1975, during a violent storm — 35-foot waves, hurricane-force winds — on Lake Superior.

Its 29 crew members perished.

The loss was immortalized a year later in a song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” written and sung by Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot.

To this day, it remains the largest ship to sink in Lake Superior.

The ship, which launched in 1958, was named for Edmund Fitzgerald, president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee — and no stranger to Iowa.

The executive’s son, Edmund Bacon Fitzgerald, once told a reporter the ship’s launch was the happiest day of his father’s life and its loss “probably the worst day of my father’s life.”

According to his children, the freighter had a hold on Fitzgerald’s life until he died at age 90 on Jan. 9, 1986.

Building a ship

Fitzgerald’s insurance company had the freighter built at the Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, Mich. Fitzgerald’s wife, Elizabeth, christened it when it launched June 7, 1958.

After a couple of months of finishing work, the 7,500-ton freighter set out Aug. 15 on the Detroit River.

“The Fitz,” as the boat was nicknamed, could carry up to 25,500 tons of ore from the Duluth iron ore fields to the iron works in Detroit. It clipped along at 16 miles per hour, topping by about 5 mph the fastest ships on the Great Lakes.

The Fitz was the largest vessel on the lakes for a little more than a year, until the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co. launched the Edward L. Ryerson for Inland Steel Corp. in the fall of 1959. The Ryerson was a foot longer than the Fitz.

Northwestern Mutual Life leased the Fitz to the Columbia Transportation Division of Cleveland’s Oglebay Norton Co. for 25 years.

Iowa ties

The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. began operations in Janesville, Wis., in 1857, relocating to Milwaukee two years later. It opened an office in Minnesota in 1859 and in Iowa in 1860, according to the company’s website.

Iowa formed its own association of Northwestern Mutual agents, which held annual conventions throughout the state.

Cedar Rapids banker and businessman C.D. Van Vechten was associated with Northwestern Mutual from 1888 until he retired in 1925. Cedar Rapids utility executive Sutherland C. Dows was a trustee of the company in the 1930s.

Advice to C.R. hospitals

Fitzgerald joined Northwestern Mutual Life in 1932 on a part-time basis. He became vice president in 1933 and company president in 1947.

During his years as a Northwestern executive, Fitzgerald made numerous trips to Iowa for company conventions, including one to Cedar Rapids in 1957 when he was a featured speaker — along with local businessman Robert Armstrong — at a fundraiser to benefit expansion of Cedar Rapids’ two hospitals.

In advocating for the hospital additions, Fitzgerald said, “You build a hospital with ‘cheap dollars’ — money that is deducted from income tax by donors, But you maintain a hospital with money that is not acquired by donation. Therefore, it is advisable to construct a hospital that will require as low operating expenses as possible and still give satisfactory services.”

Fitzgerald returned to speak at the 68th All-Iowa meeting of Northwestern agents in Waterloo in 1958, the same year the company’s biggest investment, the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, was launched.

Lost to the lake

A year after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, The Gazette reflected on the loss.

“The day after the tragedy, a minister offered prayers for the 29 seamen lost in that storm.

“Those prayers were spoken in the 127-year-old Mariners’ Church in Detroit. Father Ingalls, a native of Des Moines, told The Gazette this week no special service was scheduled for the first anniversary of the sinking.


“He said, ‘Although this shipwreck has captured a lot of public attention, there have been many shipwrecks on the lakes. We have an annual memorial service in March.’

“He said it would be unfair to have special services for the crew of the Fitzgerald when so many others had been lost on the lakes.”

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