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Gordon Lightfoot dies at 84; iconic song 'Edmund Fitzgerald' continues to drive tourism to the Great Lakes

The six-minute ballad tells the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald and how it sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, killing all 29 crew members.

DULUTH, Minn. — Folk-rock legend Gordon Lightfoot died Monday at the age of 84.

Lightfoot was born in Canada and was popular in both his native country and the United States.

Many of his albums have gone gold and platinum, but one of his most popular songs was an unexpected hit and is still inspiring tourists nearly 50 years later.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was released in 1976.

The six-minute ballad tells the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald and how it sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, killing all 29 crew members.

“They called it the 'Queen of the Great Lakes' because it hauled iron ore across the Great Lakes so quickly,” Corey Adkins said.

Adkins is the communications director for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society in Michigan.

He said Gordon Lightfoot and his song about the Edmund Fitzgerald have had a profound effect on the shipwreck community and their museum.

“The awareness that song has brought to shipwrecks is huge. It helps us get the other stories of the other wrecks out there because there are hundreds and thousands of them on the Great Lakes and each one is a different story,” Adkins said.

Adkins said divers went down to retrieve the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1995. It's now on display in their museum.

He said Gordon Lightfoot has visited the museum several times over the years, most recently in 2015 for the 40th anniversary of the ship going down.

“He came for the anniversary, but he didn’t come on Nov. 10. He came on the ninth, because all he wanted to do was talk to the family members. He wanted to talk to them because he had become friends with many of them and he didn’t want the focus or the attention to be on him during the anniversary on the 10th. That kind of shows you what kind of a guy he was,” Adkins says.

The song also inspired an annual tradition at the Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors, Minnesota.

Every year on the day the ship sunk, the lights are turned on and historians read the names of the 29 crew members who died in the wreck.

"A lot of them were from Duluth and the North Shore area,” lighthouse manager Hayes Scriven said.

Scriven said the tradition of turning on the lighthouse on the shipwreck's anniversary started in the 80s after the previous caretaker heard Lightfoot's song on the radio.

The caretaker went to the lighthouse later that night and turned the lights on, and several community members appreciated the simple tribute to the Edmund Fitzgerald and its crew.

“He did it again the next year and then it kind of became a thing and now we have a whole program around it every year,” Scriven said.

The song has since become an anthem for the North Shore, bringing in thousands of tourists every year.

"I would say 30% to 40% of our visitors come here because they heard the song,” Scriven said.

“Gordon was known as a storyteller and that song kind of epitomizes it really."


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