Eight Decades Ago, a Ship Vanished Into the Depths of Lake Superior. Why Did the Captain Remain Aboard?

The wreck of the S.S. Arlington has finally been found—but it provides no answers about Captain Frederick Burke’s final moments

Steering wheel
The steering wheel at the site of the newly identified shipwreck Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

In the early morning hours of May 1, 1940, as a thick fog blanketing Lake Superior transformed into a ferocious storm, the crew of the S.S. Arlington started to worry. The first mate directed the ship to hug the shore, but the captain, Frederick Burke, overrode him, ordering the men to press on.

The 244-foot bulk carrier began sinking around 4:30 a.m. With no word from the captain, the crew fled to the lifeboats. The Collingwood, a large freighter that had been monitoring the foundering ship, rescued all 16 crew members—but Burke remained on the Arlington. Just before he and his vessel vanished into the depths, the captain raised his hand and waved.

“He just wouldn’t leave his ship,” chief engineer Fred Gilbert told the Windsor Star after the rescue. “That rule of the sea that a master must stick with his ship doesn’t only apply to the navy.”

The Arlington has been resting some 600 feet below the lake’s surface for over 80 years. This week, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society announced that the vessel has finally been found about 35 miles off the coast of Michigan.

S.S. Arlington historical photo
The S.S. Arlington was a 244-foot bulk carrier that set sail from Port Arthur, Ontario, on April 30, 1940. Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Dan Fountain, a researcher who pours over remote-sensing data to identify shipwrecks in Lake Superior, first noticed an anomaly at the site several years ago. He contacted the historical society, which deployed side-scan sonar technology to detect the presence of a ship. Last year, using remote-operated vehicles, researchers found faded lettering on the hull that identified it as the Arlington.

“It’s exciting to solve just one more of Lake Superior’s many mysteries,” says Fountain in a statement. “I hope this final chapter in [the Arlington’s] story can provide some measure of closure to the family of Captain Burke.”

But while the discovery is big news, it reveals no answers to that fateful day’s most pressing questions.

The Arlington set sail from Port Arthur, Ontario, carrying a load of wheat, on April 30, 1940. Nobody knows why Burke, an experienced captain, insisted on pressing on as conditions deteriorated. The 32,000-square-mile lake is home to hundreds of shipwrecks—most famously the Edmund Fitzgerald, which became the subject of a Gordon Lightfoot hit soon after it sank in 1975—and is known for its rapidly developing dangerous conditions.

Faded lettering on ship's hull
Researchers identified the ship based on faded lettering still present on its hull. Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

“That lake will take you in a second if you don’t keep your eye on it,” Corey Adkins, content and communications director at the historical society, tells the Washington Post’s Kelsey Ables. “And Captain Burke that night did not keep his eye on it.”

Once the ship started to founder, it went down with alarming speed. Much of the vessel was covered in ice, and crew members struggled to release the lifeboats into the frigid waters. Gilbert told the Windsor Star that he lost everything he had onboard; he didn’t even have time to fetch his overcoat.

Burke, meanwhile, remained in the pilothouse as the crew scrambled.

“The last man in the wheelhouse simply said he was not coming,” Bruce Lynn, the executive director of the historical society, tells the New York Times’ Christine Hauser. “There is speculation about this veteran of the lakes. Why was he acting the way he was acting? What was happening in those final moments?”

Sketch of Captain Burke
A sketch of Captain Frederick Burke aboard the sinking ship Robert McGreevy / Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

The notion that the captain must “go down with the ship” is well-known and sometimes even codified into law. But this maritime maxim doesn’t literally mean that the captain of a sinking ship is destined to die; it means that they must be the last to leave the ship after ensuring the safety of everyone else on board.

“Even if the captain’s own negligence results in hundreds of deaths, it’s not his symbolic duty to add his life to the total,” wrote the New York Times’ Chuck Klosterman in 2014. “If he’s no longer in a position to save anyone else, he can absolutely save himself.”

Burke’s fate baffled those who were close to the disaster. When the rescued men returned to shore, the captain’s two brothers were waiting for them. T.J. Carson, the captain of the Collingwood, shook their hands and wept.

Nobody knows for sure why Burke was waving in his final moments. Maybe the gesture was a solemn indication that he’d chosen to remain aboard—or perhaps it was an unanswered call for help.

As Fountain tells the Times, “The question is whether he was saying, ‘Hey, hold the lifeboat’ or waving goodbye.”

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