Since then, the GLSPS has undertaken an array of other projects, including the September 1996 restoration of the SS America crew quarters at Isle Royale National Park. It was the first time a group attempted to stabilize and restore the underwater structures of a shipwreck in a national park. The society’s members believe this was the first project of its kind in the U.S. and possibly in the world.
Steve Daniel, author of The SS America: A Diver’s Vision of the Past, is the society’s vice president. “The reason GLSPS was formed was because the government didn’t have the resources and there wasn’t any one agency that had the responsibility of looking after these sites. We work with the DNR, the Minnesota Historical Society, and several other agencies. The state owns these wrecks, but they can’t afford to maintain them. We’re spearheading this preservation effort. We can pull that together.” While GLSPS seeks to inform, it’s also adamant about leaving a site undisturbed. “We educate all our members who dive not to touch anything. We do a lot of talks with scuba classes about how to leave a site undisturbed,” said Daniel. “We started the ‘Put It Back’ program with the Minnesota Preservation Office,” he added. “It provides a way to return artifacts previously removed from shipwrecks to their original site or a museum. We want these things to last. They’re history,” said Daniel.
Tysall is even more adamant about this. “When you touch the ladder of the Monitor [a historic wreck in North Carolina] and you realize that Abraham Lincoln once held that ladder, that’s history; that’s a religious experience. It’s a privilege. The Great Lakes have thousands of wrecks with bodies down there, and that’s part of history, too.”
Maybe we’ll be seeing an episode of that history on the big screen, if Chabot gets his film off the ground. The success of Titanic and The Perfect Storm is helping to generate more interest and support for his project. “It’s a story that really has to get told,” Chabot insisted cheerfully, pointing out that the public’s interest in storms and wrecks isn’t going to fade anytime soon. The proliferation of shipwreck conferences throughout the Great Lakes region—including the annual Gales of November in Duluth this month and the Ghost Ships Festival coming up in Milwaukee in March—confirm this. Chabot doesn’t plan for the film to solve the controversy over the exact cause of the ship’s sinking, which has been debated since the start. People with an interest tend to take a stance and stick to it.
“Everybody knows why the Fitz sank,” said Tysall. “She was incredibly overloaded—every year they repainted her load lines. And she was sailing late in the season. So was the Anderson. But the Anderson didn’t sink in the storm, because she wasn’t overloaded.”
“[The Fitzgerald’s Captain] McSorley was well known as a ‘rough weather’ captain. Rough water didn’t really scare him,” said Chabot. “If you notice, there weren’t a whole lot of other ships out there that night. McSorley believed in his boat and he didn’t like to waste time. He was famous for saying, ‘We don’t get paid for sitting here.’”
That legendary wreck scared other captains, though. “The captains I talk to say that after the Fitzgerald, nobody was as willing to go out in that kind of weather,” said Chabot. “They say that’s a good part of the reason there hasn’t been another ship lost since the Fitzgerald.” But now, almost thirty years after the tragedy, not everyone remembers. “Some of the captains I talk to say they’re concerned about the younger guys, the ones who don’t remember so vividly. After all, it’s expensive to anchor out a storm. Lost time is lost money. And there’s some concern that as the memory of what happened that night fades further over the next five to ten years, a terrible history could repeat itself.” Beware the Witch of November.