Editor's Note: Each Thursday, @Ford Online takes a look back at Ford heritage moments from the company's past.
RIVER ROUGE, Mich. - On May 5, 1953, Ford launched the William Clay Ford ore ship, which at the time was the newest and largest of the company’s ore fleet, at the Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge.
The William Clay Ford, named after the father of current Executive Chairman Bill Ford, joined the Henry Ford II and the Benson Ford ships in the fleet which were both launched in 1924.
The decision was made to build the new 647-foot ore ship in order to meet the country’s expanding need of steel for defense production.
The ship was powered by a 7,000 horsepower oil fired steam turbine, could carry 19,000 gross tons, had a speed of 16 miles an hour and a crew of 35.
The three ships together were able to supply Rouge steel operations with approximately 2 million tons of iron ore and lime-stone a season between April and November.
The William Clay Ford and the Edmund Fitzgerald Connection
On Nov. 10, 1975, the William Clay Ford was traveling upbound in Lake Superior, the northernmost of the Great Lakes. As a winter storm blew across the lake, Captain Donald Erickson and his crew were able to seek refuge in the sheltered waters of Whitefish Bay, west of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
Meanwhile, two other freighters, U.S. Steel's Arthur M. Anderson and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance's Edmund Fitzgerald, were traveling downbound and into the storm.
At 3 p.m., Captain Erickson heard the Fitzgerald radioing the Anderson with the ominous message that the Fitzgerald was taking on water. About 7:10 p.m., the Fitzgerald radioed the Anderson that the ship was holding its own. Within minutes the Anderson reported that her crew had lost contact with the Fitzgerald and could find no trace of her. The Coast Guard sent out a call asking the ships anchored in Whitefish Bay to brave the storm to assist in searching for the missing Fitzgerald.
Of the eight ships that received the call, only the William Clay Ford left the safety of the harbor to join the Anderson in a perilous search for the Fitzgerald. But tragically, the Fitzgerald was lost, and there were no survivors.
On Jan. 27, 1978, the officers and crew of the William Clay Ford were honored for heroism by the Great Lakes Maritime Institute. The bronze plaque they received states that the men "voluntarily left a safe harbor to face the dangers of gale-force winds and vicious seas, in the blackness of a storm" in hopes of saving lives.