The Final Voyage of the SS Arlington: A Maritime Inquiry into Tragedy

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    Within the cold, unfathomable depths of Lake Superior lies a tale of human ambition and nature’s indomitable will, a narrative that mirrors the grand urban visions sculpted by Robert Moses, yet set upon the vast, untamed waters. This story, centered around the SS Arlington and its enigmatic captain, Frederick “Tatey Bug” Burke, unfolds a drama of maritime adventure, technological prowess, and the eternal quest for mastery over the elements.

    The SS Arlington, originally christened the F.P. Jones in 1913 by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company, embarked on its storied journey through the annals of Great Lakes shipping history. Renamed the Glencadam in 1919 before being acquired and rechristened by the Mathews Steamship Company in 1936, it was the Burke Towing and Salvage Company that would ultimately define her legacy. Employed in the grain hauling business during the seasonal ebb and flow of shipping traffic, the Arlington, under its new commander Captain Frederick “Tatey Bug” Burke in 1940, was a vessel destined for both greatness and tragedy.

    As spring heralded the start of the 1940 shipping season, the Arlington, inspected and found in good order, was laden with 98,000 bushels of wheat in Port Arthur, Ontario. She set sail under the command of Burke, navigating the unpredictable moods of Lake Superior towards Owen Sound. Despite the advanced navigational aids aboard, such as a direction finder that led the Arlington to take the lead ahead of the larger Collingwood in dense fog, the journey was fraught with peril.

    As the 1940 shipping season dawned, the Arlington, freshly inspected and deemed seaworthy, embarked from Port Arthur, Ontario, laden with a cargo destined for Owen Sound—98,000 bushels of wheat that spoke of human toil and the earth’s bounty. With Captain Burke at the helm, the vessel charted a course through Lake Superior’s mercurial waters, guided by a rare technological marvel of the time—a direction finder. This device, a beacon of human ingenuity, allowed the Arlington to lead the way through the fog for the larger but less-equipped Collingwood, a testament to the prowess and ambition that defined maritime navigation in that era.

    Yet, the voyage of the Arlington was marked by a series of decisions that mirrored the complex, often solitary decision-making associated with Robert Moses’ own legacy. Captain Burke’s choice to countermand First Mate Junis Macksey’s cautious approach, opting instead for a direct course that would ultimately lead them into peril, underscores a narrative of determination and the daunting responsibility borne by those who dare to lead.

    The Arlington’s struggle against the gales and towering waves of Lake Superior, with the crew’s valiant efforts to secure the hatches against the onslaught, encapsulates the human spirit’s resilience in the face of nature’s fury. Captain Burke’s decision to steer the ship back onto its original course, even as the situation grew dire, and his eventual directive to attempt grounding the vessel for salvage, reflects a complex interplay of duty, hope, and desperation.

    The discovery of the Arlington’s final resting place by the GLSHS, through the meticulous efforts of Dan Fountain and his team, is not just the culmination of a long-standing mystery but a tribute to the enduring legacy of those who navigate the Great Lakes. Equipped with modern technology, they have bridged the gap between past and present, unearthing a story that resonates with themes of exploration, technological innovation, and the indomitable human spirit.

    The legacy of the SS Arlington, then, is woven into the fabric of maritime history—a poignant reminder of the trials and triumphs that mark humanity’s journey through time. It is a narrative that speaks to the heart of our collective endeavor: to explore, to innovate, and to persevere, against the vast, unforgiving backdrop of nature’s canvas.

    The ensuing disaster, as heavy seas began to board the Arlington and the crew battled to secure the hatches, culminated in a desperate struggle against the elements. Captain Burke’s decision to resume the original course, despite the worsening conditions, and his subsequent return to sleep, only to be awakened as the vessel began to take on water, paints a portrait of a man at once determined and bound by fate to his ship.

    As the Arlington foundered, and the crew, save for Burke, abandoned ship, the captain’s final act of remaining aboard, even as rescue was within grasp, stands as a poignant reminder of the indomitable spirit of those who sail the Great Lakes. The discovery of the Arlington’s wreck in 2023 by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS), through the dedicated efforts of shipwreck researcher Dan Fountain and a team equipped with side-scan sonar and remote-operated vehicles, brings closure to one of Lake Superior’s many mysteries.

    This tale, rich in detail and steeped in the lore of the Great Lakes, serves as a modern-day parable of Robert Moses’ ethos: the relentless pursuit of one’s objectives in the face of adversity. Captain Burke’s story, from the initial voyage of the Arlington under his command to its tragic end, encapsulates a saga of determination, technological ingenuity, and the profound bond between man and the natural world.

    In the end, the SS Arlington and Captain Frederick “Tatey Bug” Burke’s legacy is not merely one of tragedy but a compelling narrative of human endeavor against the backdrop of nature’s grandeur and fury. It is a story that resonates with the spirit of exploration and the timeless quest to push the boundaries of what is possible, both in the concrete jungles of urban landscapes and the vast, unyielding expanse of the Great Lakes.

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