Strolling on a beach in January near Wedge Island in Western Australia, Kym and Tonya Illman spotted a dark glass bottle mired in the dunes, as The Guardian reports. After first dismissing it as trash, Tonya took a closer look and decided the bottle's distinctive raised lettering might be a nice decorative touch in their house. Unbeknownst to the Illmans at the time, they had just retrieved the oldest message in a bottle ever found.
Back home, a family friend tipped the sand out of the bottle. Out came a rolled piece of paper that was dated June 12, 1886 and included coordinates for the German sailing ship Paula. The note requested that the finder send the note to the German Naval Observatory along with the coordinates where it was found—part of a long-term German experiment to track ocean currents that ran between 1864 and 1933.
The message was authenticated by the Western Australian Maritime Museum and the German Naval Observatory. Researchers were even able to find an entry from the captain's log matching the June 12 date and mentioning that a drift bottle had been put out to sea as the Paula crossed the Indian Ocean. The handwriting was also a match. If you're in Western Australia, you can see the bottle on display at the Western Australian Maritime Museum through 2020.
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound When the wave broke over the railing And every man knew, as the captain did too 'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
-Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976)
On November 10, 1975, two ships made their way in tandem across the stormy waters of Lake Superior. One was the Arthur M. Anderson, led by Captain Jesse Cooper. The other, captained by Ernest McSorley, was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.
The ship was last seen on radar around 7:15 p.m. All 29 men on board were lost with it, and today, more than four decades after the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the cause is still a mystery.
Here's what we do know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and what happened to it that fateful day:
1. IT WAS THE LARGEST SHIP ON THE GREAT LAKES.
The large cargo vessels that roamed the five Great Lakes were known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest ever built. It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. It was christened on June 8, 1958, and made its first voyage on September 24 the same year.
Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was contracted to build the ship in 1957 by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, which had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industries. With the commissioning of the Fitzgerald, Northwestern Mutual became the first American insurance company to build its own ship—at a cost of $8.4 million, the most expensive price tag for a freighter at the time, according to Michael Schumacher’s The Mighty Fitz.
3. IT WAS NAMED AFTER THE HEAD OF THE COMPANY.
The chairman of Northwestern Mutual had a long history with the Great Lakes shipping industry. Edmund Fitzgerald’s grandfather captained a ship on the lakes, his father owned a shipyard, and they both had ships named after them. After construction of the Fitzgerald was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed its charter with the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, based in Cleveland.
Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally loaded taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.
5. "THE FITZ" WAS WELL-KNOWN EVEN BEFORE IT SANK.
Its impressive size made the ship popular with boat-watchers, and over the years it garnered many nicknames, including “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” “The Toledo Express,” and the unfortunate “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Crowds would watch as the massive freighter moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The “Soo” Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowed the Fitz to reach ports on the lower Great Lakes.
6. THE SHIP RAN INTO A DEADLY STORM ON LAKE SUPERIOR.
November is a brutal month on the Great Lakes. Frequent storms and hurricane-force winds can batter even the toughest-built freighters. On November 9, the Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock in Superior, Wisconsin. It left at 2:30 p.m. A second ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, sailed 10-15 miles behind the Fitzgerald as a precaution, and the two ships remained in radio contact until just after 7 p.m. on November 10.
Gale warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service the previous day, and by the morning of the 10th, the advisories had been upgraded to an official storm warning.
As swells reached 35 feet and winds raged at nearly 100 mph, the ship contacted Coast Guard officials in Sault Ste. Marie and said they were taking on water. Later, a blizzard obscured the Fitz on the Anderson’s radar, but Captain Ernest McSorley, who was on his final voyage before retirement, assured a crew member on the Anderson at 7:10 p.m. that, “We are holding our own.” It was the last anyone heard from McSorley or the Fitzgerald.
7. NO DISTRESS SIGNAL WAS SENT.
After that, there was nothing on the radar. No radio contact. The ship was approximately 15 miles north of Whitefish Point when it seemingly vanished. Captain Cooper, on the Anderson, was in contact with the Coast Guard and made it to Whitefish Point sometime after 8 p.m. with no sign or word from the Fitzgerald. Later, the Anderson made its way back into the storm to search for the ship, but found only a pair of lifeboats and debris.
8. ALL 29 CREW MEMBERS DIED.
Along with the captain, the other crew members of the Fitzgeraldincluded porters, oilers, engineers, maintenance workers, cooks, watchmen, deck hands, and wheelsmen. Most crew members were from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.
9. THERE IS STILL NO DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION FOR THE SINKING.
The treacherous weather conditions are an obvious factor, but experts differ on what they think specifically caused the accident. Following the wreck, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the tragedy was likely due to faulty cargo hatches, which led to flooding. Predictably, there are still those who harbor other theories, including unsecured hatches, maintenance troubles, massive waves, structural issues, and yes, even aliens. Author and Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse posited that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on too much water before plunging into Lake Superior.
10. THE TRAGEDY WAS IMMORTALIZED BY A CANADIAN FOLK SINGER.
Gordon Lightfoot, who had released 10 albums from 1966 to 1975, was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 albumSummertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit.
11. FAMILY MEMBERS REQUESTED A SYMBOLIC MEMORIAL FROM THE SHIP.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deployed planes and cutters with magnetic anomaly detectors, sidescan sonar, and sonar survey to find the wreckage. In May, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle was sent to the site, and on May 20, 1976, the ship was spotted 535 below the surface of the lake.
In the decades since, only a handful of people have been able to see the wreck, which lies in two pieces. A pair of divers made their way down in 1995, the same year a crew—with help from the Canadian Navy, the National Geographic Society, Sony, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians—retrieved the ship's bell at the behest of the families of those who were lost. The Canadian government has since prohibited access to the site.
In eerie archival tapes below, you can hear Anderson skipper Jesse Cooper correspond with the Coast Guard, and see video of the wreck.
12. THERE'S AN ANNUAL REMEMBRANCE DAY.
The annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony takes place on November 10th at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The recovered and restored bell will toll 29 times for each member of the Fitzgerald's crew, and a 30th for the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.
On November 10, 1969, television audiences were introduced to Sesame Street. In the near-50 years since, the series has become one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame Street facts.
1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.
2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.
3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.
4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.
5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius.
6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."
7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.
8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."
9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.
10.Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.
11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."
12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.
13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.
14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2".
15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.
16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS's funding.
17.Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.
18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmire, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”
19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”
20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.
21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.
22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.
23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.
24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."
25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.
26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.
27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.
28.Sesame Street’s executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.
29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.
30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.
31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.
32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.
33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.
34. As Mental Floss's Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."
35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.
36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"
37.Sesame Street's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.
38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.
39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.
40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.
An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.