The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was more than a popular ballad made famous by Gordon Lightfoot more than three decades ago. It was a way of life for Frank Stelzer who served as second engineer aboard the doomed ore freighter six months before she went down with all hands in a monster storm on Lake Superior Nov. 10, 1975 with 26,000 tons of iron pellets.
The 76-year-old retired Merchant Mariner, who lives south of Punta Gorda, Fla., served 38 years aboard ore boats that plied the frigid Great Lake waters bringing coal and iron ore to the steel mills of Chicago, Gary and Toledo. During a lifetime aboard ship he’s weathered many a storm at sea.
“When she went down I was on watch aboard the steamer Armco about 10 hours behind the Fitzgerald. We were getting the hell beat out of us in the same storm that sank their ship,” he recalled. “Waves were 40 feet high on Superior – it was hell out there.
“We knew nothing about the Fitzgerald’s fate until we heard a radio transmission from a U.S. Steel representative who said, ‘We’ve lost the Fitzgerald. She’s gone!’ The last transmission from the ship’s captain came at 7:10 p.m. ‘We’re going down,’ is all he said.
“My best friend, Eddy Bindon went down on the Edmund Fitzgerald. He was first engineer aboard the 750-foot steamer.
“Eddy and I were like brothers. If I was working on the Fitzgerald’s engine he knew the tool I needed. I didn’t have to ask, he would hand it to me. We worked together three or four years.
“Losing Eddy and the Fitzgerald was the worst experience of my 38 years at sea,” he said the other day. “Her sinking bothered me a lot.
“There was a lot of controversy after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Some claim the hatch covers came loose and water got into the ship during the storm. When she went down she ran up on a reef that broke its back. No bodies were ever found.”
Six months before the Fitzgerald went to the bottom, Stelzer had a falling out with the chief engineer aboard the doomed ship. He moved on to the Armco, a larger and more up-to-date ore ship. It was a fortunate move for him.
Over the years Stelzer served aboard a number of ore ships. He made thousands of short 2 1/2 day hauls from places like Duluth or Silver Bay, Minn. with ore to the Illinois steel mills along the shore of Lake Superior.
Most of the time it was an uneventful two months aboard ship and a month ashore with his family. Looking back on his life at sea the old salt admits, “It’s not a family life. No service is a family life. There was one year I didn’t see my family for 11 months and five days.
“I was on another ship called Hitler’s Revenge because it had a German-made engine. It was a 4 cylinder steam engine. It was a bear to work on. I was chief engineer on that ship for 18 months. I worked an average of 18 hours a day, every day just to keep the engine going,” he said.
“I’d no sooner get off duty, take a quick shower and lie down when I’d get a call from the engine room. ‘Hey Chief the engine’s on fire!’ I’d tell ’em ‘Take some hot water and throw it on top of the engine. It put the fire out.
“This happened quite frequently. They got to the point where they didn’t have to call me. They’d just take a bucket of hot water and throw it on the engine and and that was that.
“It used so much lubricating oil that it leaked all over the engine. It would get so hot atop the engine that it would burst into flames. They’d throw a bucket of hot water on the flames and keep going.
“Shortly before I retired I finally got off that ship with the German engine and got on as chief engineer aboard a turban-powered ship. I told them this was the lap of luxury compared to that old four cylinder German engine.
“On time late in November aboard the steamer Armco were were in Silver Bay taking on a load of iron ore when the motor on the crane that removed the hatch covers burned out. I was told to go up and change the motor. It was 25 below and I was out there on the deck in my insulated coveralls, jacket and boots freezing as I worked with my bare hands changing the motor. When I got through I couldn’t move my fingers. I felt like I had frost bite all over me. It was hell.
“Usually aboard ship, when it was hot that’s when something broke down in the engine-room. When it was cold on deck that’s when something broke down on deck,” he explained.
“I was on a ship called the Ashland –604 feet long. We got into a storm on Lake Superior in the summer time. There were gale warnings up when we left port, but the captain thought it wouldn’t be too bad.
“When we got into it and the ship started rocking and rolling, you hung on for dear life. One moment you were looking straight down at the water and the next moment you were looking straight up at the sky. We had 16 hours of that.
“In the engine-room you hang onto handles while you were watching the gauges.
“We were hauling coal for fuel. The hatch cover for the coal bunker was right over my room. When they took that cover off I figured that ain’t no place for me.”
“A hatch cover weighed maybe 10 tons. It was flying around on deck during that storm,” he said.
By 1975 Stelzer and his wife, Patricia, had had enough of the Minnesota cold and decided to come south. They moved to Punta Gorda from the frigid north.
He retired as chief engineer of the Armco in 1993 and moved here permanently. The Stelzers’ have three children: Gregory in Arizona, Bruce in Venice and Pamela in Grand Rapids, Mich.
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 and is republished on the with permission.
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Obituary for Frank Stelzer
January 30, 1934 – November 1, 2014
Frank Stelzer, 80, of Punta Gorda, FL passed away after a long battle with cancer. He was born January 30, 1934 in Luster, Montana, to Ferdinand and Sarah Stelzer.
Frank worked for 37 years on the Great Lakes as a merchant seaman, enjoyed traveling across the country in their RV and made beautiful jewelry. He met his wife, Pat, in Duluth, MN, and they lived there for 21 years before moving to Florida in 1977. He was a member of the Port Charlotte Moose Lodge and Punta Gorda Elks Lodge. He was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Pat; three children, Greg (Marti) of Fort Thomas, AZ, Bruce (Lori) of Venice, FL and Pam Wiersma (Bill) of Cadillac, MI, six grandchildren (Jennifer, Bobby, Kristin, Mark, Kaitlyn and Taylor), six great grandchildren, two sisters and two brothers.
Frank was preceded in death by his parents, two brothers and two sisters, and daughter Cathy.
A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 2 p.m. at Charlotte Memorial Funeral Home, 9400 Indian Spring Cemetery Road, Punta Gorda. You may pay tribute to Frank at http://www.charlottememorial.com