Eight Decades On, Lake Superior Explorers Find Vessel That Mysteriously Claimed Captain’s Life

The day was young on May 1, 1940, as the fog began to set in across Lake Superior. The S.S. Arlington sailed through the gloom, its crew becoming increasingly tetchy as conditions on the great lake began to deteriorate. This fog, it was becoming clear, was transforming into a terrible storm. The ship’s first mate sought to act fast, directing the crew to head towards the shore, but his captain overruled him. Captain Frederick Burke, in an act of apparent madness, ordered his crew to sail deeper into the storm. It was a horrible decision, but it wouldn’t be his last — not quite.

Sinking fast

It had been about 4:30 a.m. on that fateful morning when the Arlington succumbed to the storm and the damage really started to tell. The ship began to founder, and, once that grim process was under way, there was no stopping it. The vessel sank quickly.

And here’s where things get a little creepy. When the crew realized that the ship was beyond help, they fled. They made for the lifeboats and got off as quickly as they could. But Captain Burke chose to stay put.

Big questions remain

The captain stayed on board the Arlington right until the bitter end. Yet just before the ship was lost to the sea, in those final, critical moments, witnesses noticed something frightfully eerie. Burke put his hand in the air and waved — and then reportedly disappeared forever.

To this day, Captain Burke’s behavior remains a source of macabre fascination. Why did he make such a bad decision in the first place, and why, having made that choice to sail into the storm, did he simply accept his fate? Why did allow himself to be swallowed up by the icy waters?

The ship has been found

More than eight decades have now passed since the sinking of the Arlington, and the questions about what happened have largely remained unanswered. That’s hardly a surprise, given that the shipwreck’s precise location wasn’t known. But that situation, finally, has changed. In February 2024 some big news suddenly emerged: the Arlington had been found.

At a depth of something like 600 feet beneath the surface of Lake Superior, the vessel had been waiting. So, we know where it is at last, but does that mean we’ll finally be able to learn more about what happened on the day it was lost? Maybe.

The data guy

The wreck was found some distance off the shores of Michigan, deep in the waters of Lake Superior. The circumstances behind its discovery stretch back a number of years, to when a researcher named Dan Fountain noticed something unusual. Fountain’s specialism is data analysis, and he was looking at information obtained by remote-sensing technology which had been deployed at the lake.

This tech was specifically designed to help reveal shipwrecks beneath the surface. Fountain noticed that its findings pointed towards the presence of one such object 35 miles or so off the shoreline. He reached out to an organization called the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) to let it know.