Mystery shipwreck found at bottom of Lake Superior after 74 years

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A World War II-era steamship that sank along with its captain in a strong storm in 1940 has been found at the bottom of Lake Superior after a 10-year search.

The 244-foot SS Arlington lay under 650 feet of water around 35 miles north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula for 74 years and was only found after a dogged shipwreck hunter kept up the painstaking hunt.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, which worked on the discovery with researcher Dan Fountain, confirmed the find in a statement on Monday.

Fountain spotted something at the bottom of the lake using remote sensing data and contacted the society for help to find out what it was. Last year, the society towed a sonar device over the suspected resting place and confirmed it was a shipwreck, before underwater drones verified it was the missing Arlington.

Video footage released by the society showed decayed wreckage, with its smokestack toppled over and its helm, or steering wheel, still intact.

Mystery shipwreck that claimed captain's life found at bottom of Lake Superior after 74 years
Footage reveals the steering wheel of the SS Arlington at the bottom of Lake Superior.Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Captain Frederick “Tatey Bug” Burke, an experienced sailor in the Lakes, was the sole crewmember to die in the incident. It remains a mystery why he went down with the ship and didn’t escape to a nearby vessel like his crew.

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The Arlington was a Canadian bulk carrier that had set off fully loaded with wheat from Port Arthur, Ontario, on April 30 1940 bound for Owen Sound, Ontario, 1,000 miles to the east on Lake Huron. It was found near Copper Harbor, Michigan.

The ship and another that it accompanied, the Collingwood, were met with thick fog on Lake Superior that turned into a storm as night fell, with both ships rocked by the churning waters, the society said.

The Arlington’s first mate, Junis Macksey, ordered the ship to sail close to the Canadian shore to the north, to provide some cover from swirling winds and waves.

But Captain Burke overrode the order and sent the ship back out into open waters. At 4:30 a.m. on May 1, Chief Engineer Fred Gilbert sounded the alarm — the Arlington was sinking.

“Out of fear for their lives, and without orders from Captain Burke, the crew began to abandon ship on their own. Luckily, everyone safely got off the Arlington and made it to the safety of the Collingwood… everyone but Captain ‘Tatey Bug’ Burke,” the society’s statement said.

Mystery shipwreck that claimed captain's life found at bottom of Lake Superior after 74 years
A mooring winch is preserved on the deck of the Arlington.Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Despite an inquiry and decades of speculation, the fate of Burke has remained a puzzle ever since. The society said that some reports from the time indicated that he was seen near the pilothouse of the ship and waved to the Collingwood as he sank to the bottom.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Executive Director Bruce Lynn said that teamwork made the discovery possible.

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“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. Had Dan not reached out to us, we might never have located the Arlington… and we certainly wouldn’t know as much about her story as we do today,” he said.

“And this was absolutely demonstrated when Negaunee resident Dan Fountain approached us with a potential target near the Copper Harbor area of Lake Superior.

“It’s exciting to solve just one more of Lake Superior’s many mysteries, finding Arlington so far out in the lake,” Fountain said. “I hope this final chapter in her story can provide some measure of closure to the family of Captain Burke.”

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