Beware of the “November Witch!”

The freighter, The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, sank from this brutal system of storms that scream across the Great Lakes from Canada every autumn. Listen to the haunting song by Gordon Lightfoot and learn more about "The November Witch."

The November Witch, sometimes phrased as “the Witch of November,” is a popular name for the frequent and brutal system of windy storms that come screaming across the Great Lakes from Canada every autumn.

Though termed “lakes,” North America’s Great Lakes are each large enough to create their own weather systems, making them, more accurately, inland seas. In fact, collectively, the Great Lakes chain makes up the Earth’s largest system of freshwater seas.

Each year, right around mid-November, violent gales occur when the low pressure from the frigid arctic air north of the lakes comes into contact with warmer fronts pulled up from the Gulf of Mexico.

These storms can be so severe that their force is equivalent to a low-level hurricane, with winds above 80 miles per hour and towering 20-foot seas.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The term “Witch of November” was famously used in the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, a poetic tribute to one of the most well-known Great Lakes shipwrecks in recent memory.

On November 10, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a massive ore freighter that had once been the largest in its class, sank to the bottom of Lake Superior during a particularly violent autumn gale, killing all 29 of its crew members.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1971 – Photo from wikimediacommons.com

Though one of the most infamous, Edmund Fitzgerald was far from the only ship to succumb to the Witch of November. The floors of all five Great Lakes are littered with thousands of wrecked vessels.

More than 6,000 ships were lost on the Great Lakes between the years 1878 and 1897 alone. Over the last 300 years, an estimated 25,000 mariners have lost their lives on the Great Lakes, with the vast majority of those casualties occurring within the icy grip of the November Witch.

Watch the following tribute to the Edmund Fitzgerald, with real news footage, set to Gordon Lightfoot’s famous tune:

Farmers' Almanac - Itch
Jaime McLeod

Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.

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Sheri

I stood on the shore of Lake Erie that day and had never seen the Lake so wild. Never gave a thought about the ship even though my good friend was on it. What a shock when I saw the headlines on the Star Beacon the next day saying she had gone down. 46 years now and every year I still feel the pain.

Susan Higgins

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Sheri. Heartbreaking.

Regina Clarke

Powerful video–thank you…

Larry Kalb

While I am a Gordon Lightfoot Fan of numerous decades, this Tribute was very sad, Dirgeful tune/melody but, unfortunately, it fit the situation. Those Greedy Corporate Tycoons HAVE NO FEELING FOR PRECIOUS LIVES LOST BECAUSE OF THEIR GREED ! I AM VERY GLAD THAT THOSE SHIPS ARE NOT ALLOWED SAIL IN WEATHER LIKE THAT ANYMORE !

Also, I am a Fan of Lighthouses, as well and NEW JERSEY HAS MANY OF THEM. Every Third Weekend in October there is “The Lighthouse Challenge”. Those entered try to visit and walkup or down every single Lighthouse in the State. I have gone to visit Lighthouses on a different weekend than this October and have visited several Lighthouses.

Thank you for your time and interest ..
SINCERE SYMPATHIES TO ALL THOSE FAMILIES WHO LOST RELATIVES IN THOSE SHIPWRECKS. MAY THEIR MEMORIES BE FOR AN ETERNAL BLESSXING ! LET UIS SAY AMEN.

Marilynn B

Why do they allow shipping to proceed during a time of the year recognized to be particularly dangerous? Aren’t the lives of all those men worth more than a load of ore or any other cargo for that matter?

Mark

The Edmund Fitzgerald was the last large commercial ship to sink on the Great lakes and that was 45 years ago. This is because of the improved weather forecasting technology. They don’t sail anymore in bad weather.

Tammy

Beautiful way to remember

Pat

I normally don’t do a lot of posting however want to share my story. We lived on the north shore of Lake Superior when this storm hit and my husband, myself, and two friends went to a lookout to check out the storm. To avoid being blown away, the stronger one held onto the door handle of the car and we all looped our arms together. I have never experienced the strength of such a wind until that moment in time and haven’t since.

Mama Zed

This song has always made me cry. Even when it first came out, although at the time I didn’t realize it was a true story. When I learned it was true, for a long time I thought the wreck was much older. But after I learned the truth…even now I weep for the lives lost, and for the grief of the families left behind. Davy Jones got himself a good crew. May they and their loved ones know peace.

beba

I am from Illinois and I can remember as a kid always hearing the older folks talk about the Edmond Fitzgerald the closer it got to November. A true loss that will never be forgotten. May the souls and the families of the Fitzgerald find peace.

Bonnadee

I have always liked Gordon Lightfoot. This particular song was informative and a beautiful musical tribute to the crew. May God give peace and comfort to their families.

Shirley Beecher

This has been one of the best posts ever on Facebook. If you’ve ever been on the Great Lakes you can imagine what it felt like. I went once on rugged waters as a dare and needless to say I’ll never do big water again!

Leila Jackowski

Love Gordon Lightfoot, had it not been for his song” the wreck of the edmond fitzgerald” i don’t think i would have know about such a tragedy. Now i honor those loves lost. Glad to have read this and know the wreck was found

Steven Metlak

I live on the eastern end of lake Erie and this is the first time I heard of the November Witch. We call them Lake Effects and, yes they are intense. Last year in one day we got around six feet in one area. They are very localized around here though. Area within a few miles received only a few inches. We live with it though.

Harry

The witch of November as described can indeed create lake effect snow, but not necessarily.

Kathy Hermes

This is one of the very best posts that I have ever seen on facebook! Not just an article, an experience. I loved the comments, too. Thanks to all involved. It gave me the chills!?

Teddy Alfrey

I enjoyed this article; however, I’m wondering if the statement of more than 6,000 ships lost between 1878 and 1897 contains a typo. If true that would mean 6,000 ships were lost in nineteen years. That would be more than 300 ships a year! A time span from 1878 to 1997 or 1977 would be more like it (and easily mis-typed).

Mark

It’s 6,000 ships in 400 years. Yes, it’s a typo.

Susan Higgins

Actually, Mark, it’s not a typo. According to the Smithsonian’s “On the Water” exhibit website, “As commerce expanded after the mid-1800s, growing numbers of mariners faced the dangers of the Lakes. A four-day gale in 1869 wrecked 97 ships, and in 1871 there were 591 sinkings, collisions, groundings, and explosions—one for every four boats on the Lakes. Between 1878 and 1897, the Lakes claimed almost 6,000 ships.”

kathy

I sure remember this storm i was on the Agawa Canyon on lake Huron i never thought i would ever see green grass again and when i lived through that i never went on the Great Lakes ever again .

Char

I used to have this song on a 45 when I was a kid. I’ve always loved songs that tell a story. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned this was from a true story. Mother nature can be cruel and beautiful, you just never know. That was a touching tribute, thanks for running this. I know the families of those lost are feeling the losses at this time of year.

Sheila

My husband was in the Coast Guard serving on the Ice Breaker “Mackinaw” in November of 1975. They were called out that night (after midnight) to search for the Edmond Fitzgerald. He talks about the huge waves breaking over the bow of the “Mac”, the weather, and other stories of that night. That is one day/night that he will never forget! One day we will make the trip (from Texas) to Whitefish Point to the museum.

Sandra Haroutunian

I love this song and I love the history of these ships. They have a very hard jobs and I cannot believe this year is the 40th anniversary of the wreckage. I think some of those storms have come early this year. I cannot even imagine the powerful waves that hit that ship. A few weeks ago I was in Grand Haven when they had a Gale Warning. 9-13 feet waves. But this storm spawn 25 foot waves. Wow. Thanks for sharing this. What a tragedy!!!

Kimberly London

Glad that even gone but not forgotten… Those guys are HEROES in my book they gave all. Lest we forget… Thanks for Remembering them!!!!

May Johnson

I have been to the Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Mich. The ship sunk just 17 miles from the museum. The museum was great and of course seeing the bell. On the 35th Anniversary I did watch the DVD I bought there and always sad to see the family members ringing the bell. I did see Gordon Lightfoot perform last year.

Leyla

i love reading and learning new things especially about the great lakes

KRZYL8T

I’m from Indiana, live in Houston,
Glad some1, Farmers Almanac, states it correct,, Sea

Joanne

Living in close proximity to both Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie, we get pummeled by the weather systems coming off the lakes. The lakes waves are worse than the ocean swells- the are relentless because they don’t roll, they chop, and they are one on top of the other. Ships were, and are lost in gales because of this. Basically, they have to ride alongside the waves vs cutting thru them, I believe. This makes trips more dangerous and lengthier. Read some of the ghost stories from The Great Lakes…they are really full of chills and thrills!

stinkyfinger

interesting but what about the weather system.

badnonnie

Great story the forces of nature always hold me in awe @Frutero…wow

Ruth

Thank you for the good history lesson. Love that eerie Lightfoot song and now understand it better.

Ronald J LaCourse

Love that song of the Edmund Fitzgerald and this is certainly very informative. Thank you.

Billy Bob Joe

This Is the best site ever

stupid

THIS IS SO AWESOME

Frances Taylor

I really enjoyed reading this and the the comments. These are facts that I never knew before. I also have listened to the song but really never thought much about the words. I will listen more closely the next time I hear it. The Farmers Almanac just keeps getting “gooder and gooder” with each passing year.

Judy

Living on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, we are very familiar with the gales of November. As soon as gale warnings are issued, the roads become clogged with locals driving to the lake to see the enormous waves. This summer also has claimed many lives due to rough seas and rip tides and undertow. Say a prayer for all of the lives lost to the exciting but occasionally cruel waters of the Great Lakes.

Jenny Jankosky

I had never heard of the “November Witch” before. My sister-in-law, who lives in Chicago, made a comment on facebook in regard to this term, so I looked it up. Very interesting article! I learned something today. — I have heard the song “the Edmund Fitzgerald”. Even sung it. But, obviously… I had not paid close enough attention to the words. Next time I hear it, you can be sure I will.

Jimmy Repass

yes november can be very cruel and vengence month and my thoughts and prayers are with the crew of the edmund fitzgerald,” god rest their souls” and to their families, they went to the sea, never to return, but thier deaths were an honorable death and thier souls are with God , no one can harm them now !!!

Melody

God Rest the Souls of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald-35 years ago today.

Denice Allen

I learned alot reading this story. My husband and I went to whitefish point in october on our honeymoon, the wind on the beach was so strong. I understand why ships have a hard time out there, the wind isnt that strong on lake michigan .

Tony

God Bless the 29 souls of the Edmund Fitzgerald,who went down 35yrs ago today.

Susan Dawson

And we think we control the weather. I have seen a few of those storms on the news and they arn’t pretty.

Aminal

My mother was born on Beaver Island in June of 1913, that November the “witch” took the lives of more that 250 mariners, in the greatest storm to hit the lakes. I was 9 when the Bradley went down south of the Beavers. Many books of the storms of the lakes have been published.

Thomas J McAvoy

Great story. Interesting and very informative.

Kevin Murphy

The play “10 November”–which we saw perhaps 20 years ago–told the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final voyage very powerfully. I am surprised that the play seems to have dropped out of sight, as the story that it presented was timeless.

Frutero

I was not quite thirteen when the Carl Bradley broke up just south of the Straits of Mackinaw, and she was not the first. The ship my dad last served on, the Steel Vendor, went down in Lake Superior a couple of years before I was born, partly from the Witch and partly from badly secured cargo, which exacerbated the wave action. Folklore had it that “witches” could bring storm and rain by using their brooms to stir water in their cauldrons, but in likelihood that harked back to early medieval warfare, when the last line of defense against a castle siege was sturdy kitchen wenches standing on the battlements with boiling tarpots, which they poured down on anyone attempting to raise a scaling ladder. The last words of any siege engineer falling to fiery ruin were likely to be, “that @%*#”~«»¡¤ ==itch!” And thus, a legend started.

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