In the icy depths of Lake Superior, one shipwreck mystery is solved — but another remains

The recent discovery of wreckage more than 600 feet deep in Lake Superior solves one mystery of the SS Arlington, a 244-foot bulk carrier that sank in 1940.

But while the ship’s resting place has finally been found, there’s still the matter of Capt. Frederick “Tatey Bug” Burke’s last moments.

The ship, fully loaded with wheat, set out on April 30, 1940, from Port Arthur, Ontario. It was bound for Owen Sound, Ontario, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS), which announced the discovery on Monday.

After dense fog turned into a storm and the ship began to take on water, Burke countermanded an order from the ship’s first mate to hug the shore.

That decision put the Arlington back on a course across the open lake, GLSHS said. At about 4:30 a.m. on May 1, 1940, the ship started to sink and the chief engineer sounded the alarm.

The crew began to abandon ship. And everyone — except Burke — eventually made it to safety aboard the Collingwood, a larger freighter that was also on the lake that day.

When it sank on May 1, 1940, SS Arlington was carrying grain.

When it sank on May 1, 1940, SS Arlington was carrying grain. 

Could the captain have saved himself?

“I don’t know what happened,” chief engineer Fred Gilbert was quoted saying in the May 3, 1940, edition of the Toronto Daily Star.

“She went down fast,” he said. “We hardly had time to get the lifeboats out. The ship was covered in ice — I got my hands frozen shoving them over.”

In other newspaper interviews at the time, some crew members said Burke waved at the Collingwood from near his ship’s pilothouse just before it went down.

Some people in the seafaring community said at the time that they thought Burke followed maritime tradition of a captain going down with his ship.

“I am not a bit surprised to hear that Capt. Burke went down with the ship,” George Mackery, whose father was first mate on the Arlington, told the Toronto Daily Star in an article published on May 2.

“He was a real sailor type, rough and ready and never was the type who would desert a sinking ship. We sure will miss him around the ships,” Mackery said.

Reports suggested that surviving crew members could not agree on whether the captain could have saved himself after his 16 crew members escaped in lifeboats and then to the Collingwood. The Arlington had a ship-to-shore telephone, newspaper reports said, but there was no S.O.S. call.

“Why did he go down with his ship … when he easily could have been saved like the rest of his crew? The fact is no one will ever know the answer,” GLSHS said in a news release on Monday announcing the wreckage’s discovery. GLSHS and shipwreck researcher Dan Fountain found the SS Arlington in 2023.

SS Arlington was discovered in the waters of Lake Superior in 2023.

SS Arlington was discovered in the waters of Lake Superior in 2023. An exciting surprise discovery

Fountain, a retired electronic technician who lives in Negaunee, Michigan, has been searching for shipwrecks since he was a kid and more seriously as a hobby for more than a decade, he told CNN. Fountain had been analyzing some remote sensing data that was collected years ago for other purposes when he found a deep anomaly.

He reached out to GLSHS for help in investigating the find. The water was deep enough and it was far enough offshore that Fountain didn’t think he could research the spot using his own small boat and consumer-grade sonar.

“So we knew there was something out there. We hoped there was something out there. We had indication that there was,” Fountain said.

A 2023 expedition aboard the R/V David Boyd, which included Fountain, Darryl Ertel (GLSHS’s director of marine operations) and other crew and volunteers, took searchers about 35 miles north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

Using side-scanning sonar technology, sure enough they detected something in US waters that “looked very much like shipwreck,” Fountain said.

The ship's captain was lost in the wreck. All 16 crew members were rescued by another freighter.

The ship’s captain was lost in the wreck. All 16 crew members were rescued by another freighter. 

Bruce Lynn, executive director of GLSHS, said in a statement that his organization relies on the kind of teamwork that was on display when Fountain “approached us with a potential target near the Copper Harbor area of Lake Superior. These targets don’t always amount to anything … but this time it absolutely was a shipwreck. A wreck with an interesting and perhaps mysterious story.”

Along with excitement, relief was among Fountain’s first feelings because the mission had called upon the historical society, its advanced equipment and volunteer crew from as far away as New York.

There was also surprise — and a bit of disappointment at first. They were actually looking for another vessel. “I’m not going to say what it was because we still want to go out and find it,” Fountain said.

A remotely operated vehicle was able to see some lettering across the stern that identified the ship as the Arlington, which “has some excellent stories to it too” he said. “So it was exciting.”

“It’s a great story because one, people didn’t know where it was, and there’s still the question of why the captain went down with his ship. We still don’t know anything about that, and probably never will know what his reasons were.”

Fountain also said the discovery could be significant for the family of Burke, whose descendants may still live around Midland, Ontario. But Fountain said he hasn’t been in contact with them.

“It provides a little closure for them, I hope, and just solves one more mystery of the Great Lake.”

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