As the SS Arlington, a Canadian ship carrying wheat across Lake Superior, began to sink in stormy weather on May 1, 1940, its crew boarded a lifeboat and gazed upon a strange sight.
There, across the stormy waters, was their captain, Frederick Burke, known as the 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 fled, remains a mystery. And it’s likely that the explanation, like the ship itself, will never surface, according to researchers from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, which announced Monday that the Arlington was found off the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“The question is whether he was saying, ‘Hey, hold the lifeboat,’ or was he waving goodbye,” said Dan Fountain, a researcher who volunteers with the historical society and first discovered the lakebed abnormality that led to the Arlington discovery last year.
Hundreds of ships sank in the Great Lakes, threatened by stormy waters while crossing with cargo. Many of the wrecks have been found over the years, slowly coming to light from the murky depths with the help of sonar or satellite technology.
As with the Arlington, the wrecks can be seen, but the details of the ships’ final moments are often never revealed.
Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, has served as a major commercial shipping corridor for centuries. Hundreds of wrecks are estimated to lie in the nearly 32,000-square-mile lake.
As the silt at the bottom of the lake is unstable with currents and time, the wrecks become known in stages. Disturbances on the lake bottom are shown in remote sensing data and then confirmed with side scan sonar, which sends and receives acoustic pulses that help map the bottom of lakes and detect submerged objects. Then remote control vehicles take over the details.
Artifacts, ship hulls or steering wheels drift into view. Ships are rarely brought to the surface, as it is too expensive and illegal in Michigan. Surviving manifests and crew lists are combed for traces of life on board.
Some keep their secrets to themselves. Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared in the snow in Lake Superior in 1975, taking 29 men with him and became a cultural legend thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting folk ballad. The schooner Atlanta, lost in 1891 and found in Lake Superior in 2022, brought to life the story of the six crew members who clung to their lifeboat, only two of whom survived after it capsized.
The Arlington has so far kept its most closely guarded secret, carrying with it any explanation for Captain Burke’s behavior in the ship’s final moments of distress as 10-foot waves washed over its deck.
“The stereotype is that the captain goes down with the ship,” Bruce Lynn, executive director of the historical society, said in an interview Monday. “But there was plenty of time for that captain to get out of his cockpit and be part of the crew that needed to be rescued.
“So I think the mystery of what the captain was doing is what makes this unique,” he said.
Loaded with wheat, the Arlington departed present-day Thunder Bay, Ontario for Owen Sound, Ontario on April 30, 1940, with a crew of 16. The ship and a nearby freighter, the Collingwood, encountered thick fog. By nightfall the ships were rocked by a storm, Great Lakes Historical Wreck Society it is stated in the announcement.
Captain Burke, who had made many trips on the lake, had been making decisions since the storm began that confused his crew, the historical society and Mr. Fountain said, citing contemporaneous reports from the time of the ship’s sinking.
As Arlington began to take on water, his The first mate, Junis Maccksey, was ordered to hug the north shore, hoping for protection from the wind and waves. But Captain Burke demanded that the ship stay on her course over open water.
At about 4:30 a.m. on May 1, the Arlington’s chief engineer, Fred Gilbert, sounded the alarm as the ship began to sink. The crew began abandoning ship in the absence of orders from their captain and reached Collingwood, the historical society said.
Mr Lynn said the captain spent a lot of time in the Arlington’s pilothouse because the ship was in trouble and there was confusion as to why he was waving. 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 lake veteran. Why did he behave the way he did? What happened in those last moments?”
Mr. Fountain, a researcher, discovered the abnormality at the bottom of the lake, about 35 miles north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, in 2019. Since it was confirmed to be the Arlington, which was partially sitting upright and mostly intact, he had been trying to find descendants of the crew in Midland, Ontario.
“It solved the mystery, saying we now have an ‘X’ on the map instead of a blur in this area,” he said. “We’re happy to have found it. But it’s also sobering when you realize it’s also Captain Burke’s grave.”