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Diving into the discovery of the Arlington shipwreck in Lake Superior


You've heard the saying, the captain goes down with his ship. Well, in the case of the steamship Arlington, which sank in a storm back in 1940, the captain was the only one who was not rescued. We know what happened to the Arlington, but for 84 years, we did not know exactly where the ship was until now. This week the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society announced a discovery off the coast of Michigan, about 600 feet down in Lake Superior. Bruce Lynn is the society's executive director. Welcome.

BRUCE LYNN: Thank you, Mary Louise. Thanks for having us.

KELLY: So before we get to the mystery, which you've now at least partially solved, start by just painting us a picture. What did the Arlington look like? How big was she?

LYNN: Sure, yeah. The Arlington was a pretty standard type of Great Lakes bulk carrier, only 244 feet long. So that was a relatively small ship, even for 1940 - so not an unusual kind of ship. And to have a storm in the month of May - that really was not unusual, either.

KELLY: Now, we know she was loaded with wheat. She was headed to Ontario. Why did she sink?

LYNN: So there's a lot of different things that were happening on this trip. The crew of the Arlington and that ship had departed Port Arthur, kind of the western end of Lake Superior. And they had to make their way across the lake. Fortunately, there was another ship that was out there with them, a vessel called the Collingwood. And we have to keep in mind Canada was at war. It was World War II. There was some sense of urgency to get across the lake and get that cargo of wheat delivered to Owen Sound. And they really sailed right into the teeth, if you want to put it that way, of that storm.

But as they were doing this, the captain, a man by the name of Fred Burke, who was considered a heavy weather sailor - he wasn't afraid of storms or anything like that. But the first mate, knowing that this weather wasn't getting any better, chose a more northerly route that would hug that north shore of Lake Superior, and they would be in the lee of the mainland. And, you know, with that, they would have had a little less wind, the waves a little bit - would have been a little smaller. And the captain went up into the pilothouse and almost immediately countermanded that order, and that sent them right back into the worst part of that storm.

KELLY: So the Arlington starts to take on water, starts to sink. The whole crew, the entire crew survives. The captain does not. Why?

LYNN: That is a very good question. Why did Captain Burke decide to go down with his ship? Even though we see this in movies or maybe you, you know, read about such actions and books, I would say on the Great Lakes, it's been known to happen, but it's pretty unusual. The captain did decide to stay in the pilothouse as the entire crew, except for himself, got to the stern of the vessel. But the wheelsman was the last one to leave the pilothouse.

He and the captain had a discussion. Who knows how long that lasted? But the wheelsman also knew that the ship wasn't going to last long, and once he got into that open lifeboat, the first mate had a few questions for him. Where is the captain? They had that discussion. But they all knew in that lifeboat that they didn't have much time. So they ended up pulling away from the ship. The other vessel that I'd mentioned, the Collingwood, was nearby, luckily for them. And about 15 minutes after they left the ship, it rolled over and went to the bottom. And, of course, unfortunately, Captain Burke was still in the pilothouse at that point.

KELLY: And I have to ask, are you aware of any family members of the original crew who you've reached out to and for whom this might provide - I don't know - a little bit of closure?

LYNN: We did have - actually, yesterday we had a family member, a descendent of Captain Burke, that did reach out to us. And this individual indicated that there was an appreciation on the part of the family, at this stage, that we had found it and that we were kind of keeping that chapter of maritime history and their family history, I guess you could say, alive at this point.

KELLY: Bruce Lynn of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Thanks so much.

LYNN: Thank you for having us. I really appreciate it.


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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.