When the SS Arlington, a Canadian ship carrying grain across Lake Superior, began to sink during a storm on May 1, 1940, its crew climbed into a lifeboat and watched a strange sight.
There, across the stormy waters, was their captain, Frederick Burke, known as Tatey Bug, waving to them from the deck of the Arlington, moments before he went down with his ship.
The strange behavior of the captain, a solitary figure left alone after his men’s escape, remains a mystery. And it’s likely that an explanation, like the ship itself, will never come to light, according to researchers at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, who announced Monday that the Arlington had been found off the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“The question is whether he was saying, ‘Hey, hold the lifeboat,’ or waving,” said Dan Fountain, a researcher who volunteers at the Historical Society and who first detected the anomaly in the seabed of the lake that led to the discovery of the Arlington. last year.
Hundreds of ships have sunk in the Great Lakes, endangered by stormy waters as they crossed with cargo. Many of the wrecks have been found over the years, slowly coming to light from the dark depths with the help of sonar or satellite technology.
As with the Arlington, wrecks can be seen, but details of the ships’ final moments are often never discovered.
Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake by area, has been an important commercial shipping corridor for centuries. Hundreds of shipwrecks are estimated to lie in the nearly 32,000-square-mile lake.
Because the silt at the bottom of the lake is unstable with currents and weather, wrecks gradually make themselves known. Disturbances in the lake bottom appear in remote sensing data and are then confirmed side scan sonar, which sends and receives acoustic pulses that help map the lake bottom and detect submerged objects. Then the remote-controlled vehicles collect the details.
Artifacts, ship hulls, or steering wheels come into view. Ships are rarely brought to the surface because it is too expensive and against Michigan law. Surviving manifests and crew lists are combined for clues about life on board.
Some keep their secrets to themselves. The Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared under the snow in Lake Superior in 1975, taking 29 men with it and becoming a cultural legend thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting folk ballad. The schooner Atlanta, lost in 1891 and found in Lake Superior in 2022, revived the story of the six crew members who clung to their lifeboat, only two of whom survived after it capsized.
The Arlington has thus far kept its most closely guarded secret, taking with it any explanation for Captain Burke’s behavior in the ship’s final moments of peril when 10-foot waves poured onto its sloping deck.
“The stereotype is that the captain goes down with the ship,” Bruce Lynn, the executive director of the historical society, said in an interview Monday. “But there was plenty of time for the captain to come out of the wheelhouse and be part of the crew that was being rescued.
“So I think it was the mystery of what the captain was doing that made this unique,” he said.
Loaded with grain, the Arlington departed what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario, on April 30, 1940, for Owen Sound, Ontario, with a crew of 16. The ship and a nearby freighter, the Collingwood, encountered heavy fog. As night fell the ships were hit by a storm, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society said in a statement.
Captain Burke, who had made many voyages on the lake, had made decisions since the beginning of the storm that baffled his crew, the Historical Society and Mr. Fountain said, citing contemporary reports from the time of the ship’s sinking.
When the Arlington began taking on water, its The first officer, Junis Macksey, gave orders to hug the north shore, hoping for protection from the wind and waves. But Captain Burke requested that the ship maintain its course in the open sea.
On May 1, around 4:30 a.m., Arlington’s chief engineer, Fred Gilbert, raised the alarm when the ship began to sink. The crew began abandoning ship in the absence of an order from the captain and reached Collingwood, the historical society said.
Mr Lynn said the captain had spent a lot of time in the Arlington’s wheelhouse while the ship was in distress, and there was confusion about why he was saluting. Some crew members said they believed he was ill or had fallen and was unable to get into the lifeboat.
“The last man in the wheelhouse just said he wasn’t coming,” Mr. Lynn said. “There is speculation about this veteran of the lakes. Why was he behaving the way he was behaving? What was happening in those last moments?”
Mr. Fountain, the researcher, detected an anomaly at the bottom of the lake, about 35 miles north of the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, in 2019. It has since been confirmed to be the Arlington, partly sitting in place upright and largely intact, he attempted to find the crew’s descendants in Midland, Ontario.
“It solved a mystery, saying we now have an ‘X’ on the map instead of a blurry image in this area,” he said. “We are happy to have found him. But it also makes you think when you realize that it is also the grave of Captain Burke”.