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Lyric Learning: An Interdisciplinary Approach Using "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

This song tells the true story about the shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an American Great Lakes freighter, that sank in a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. It took the lives of 29 men as they hauled iron ore from Wisconsin to Cleveland, Ohio through the Great Lakes. It was launched on June 7, 1958, and was the largest on the North American Great Lakes.

For 17 years the Edmund Fitzgerald carried carried iron ore from the mines in Minnesota, to iron works in Detroit, Toledo and other Great Lake ports. She set haul records six times with Captain Peter Pulcer at the hull known for piping music day and night over the ship’s intercom.

Carrying a full cargo of ore pellets in 1975,  Captain Ernest M. McSorley decided to take the northerly course across Lake Superior where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. This route took them between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula where the ship was caught in a severe storm on Lake Superior, with hurricane force and waves up to 35  miles high. The ship suddenly sank in Canadian Ontario waters 530 feet deep and 17 miles from Whitefish Bay near Michigan. There were no distress signals and the last message that was sent was “We are holding our own.”

There were no bodies recovered and the exact cause of the sinking of the ship still remains unknown, however; many studies feel it may have been swamped and suffered structural failure or topside damage.

Step One

Present the history of the Edmund Fitzgerald using informational sites found on Google. Some excellent ones are:  

Some books that may be of interest to your students are:

The Edmund Fitzgerald : lost with all hands : a true story for young readers by Robert Hertel

The Edmund Fitzgerald : song of the bell by Kathy-jo Wargin; Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen

29 missing : the true and tragic story of the disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald by Andrew Kantar

Step Two

Hand out the lyrics to The Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. Read through the lyrics noting facts that were learned and discussed, the path the ship took  through the Great Lakes, and the landmarks that describes where the ship sank.

Step Three  

Play the music video of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

This song can be used as a vehicle to present several learning experiences that teach and assess academic standards in several content areas.. The following are activities and strategies that can be used with the lyrics of the song.

Social Studies and Geography

Introduction to a unit on the Industrial Revolution

Investigation of America’s resources such as coal and iron ore and how they were mined and transported

Identify the Five Great Lakes and plot the voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald labeling other landmarks mentioned in the lyrics.

Language Arts

Write a letter as though you were one of the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald telling the story of the trip on that tragic night.

Create a poem about the companion ship sailed by Anderson.

Research facts about the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and compare them to the lyrics in the song. Investigate and report on the search by the Coast Guard and the last communication from the ship.

Research what role the other boat, The SS Arthur M. Anderson played in this voyage and present how this ship made it back to shore.


Study the weather patterns, seasons, and other geographical areas that are affected by the North Winds and low pressure systems.

On the night of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, research the temperature of the water, height of the waves, how fast the ship sunk, wind velocity, and any other contributing force.

Investigate what procedures were not followed and how they compromised the sinking of the ship.

In what ways are are these freighters different then today? Create a visual like a frame or Venn diagram to display your findings.


Create a scale drawing of the Edmond Fitzgerald. Note its weight and the weight of the cargo it was caring.

How big were the waves that sunk the Edmond Fitzgerald? Give the amount in feet and meters and draw an object that would show a comparison to their height.

Draw a graph representing how deep the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. (feet, miles, fathoms)

Problem Solving

Based on what is known about the voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald, what could have happened to the ship, and what can be done to avoid tragedies like this in the future.

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