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Captain of recovered Great Lakes shipwreck went down with ship

Midland's Frederick 'Tatey Bug' Burke helmed the SS Arlington during ill-fated trip from Port Arthur to Owen Sound in 1940

While the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is undoubtedly the most well-known ship to have sunk on the Great Lakes thanks to Gordon Lightfoot, another sunken ship had a very real local connection.

With news this week that the SS Arlington has been found in the deep waters of Lake Superior, it seems a good time to explore the ship and the man who helmed it, Midland native Captain Frederick “Tatey Bug” Burke.

The SS Arlington was a merchant ship that sank in Lake Superior in 1940, taking Burke with it, during a storm.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society and shipwreck researcher Dan Fountain announced Monday the bulk carrier's discovery in about 200 metres of water some 60 kilometres north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

But while the end of the ship is well-known, local history buff and lover of the Great Lakes Dean Nicholls provides some background on the man who went down with his ship and the events leading up to that fateful decision.

According to Nicholls, the SS Arlington was built in 1913 at Detroit Shipyard and called a ‘canaller;’’ steel-hulled and propeller-driven to accommodate the Great Lakes narrow locks and river systems. She was 244 feet long and 43 feet in width, comfortably able to slide through the locks.

"In 1937, she readied for Burke Towing and Salvage Company, owned and operated by Midland’s Burke brothers, and was equipped with the most modern navigational equipment available at that time."

Nicholls said that as new owners, brothers and captains Edward (1873-1958) and David Burke (1877-1941) persuaded their younger brother Frederick (born in Midland in 1885) to become her captain.

"Fred was known as a most capable, intuitive navigator using his special intelligence to navigate safely," Nicholls wrote in a story about the ship. "He had an unusual nickname and was known to all (except to his face) as ‘Tatey Bug.’

"As a youngster, Fred had a speech impediment and could not properly say his name. Known to the family as Teddy, he said ‘Taydey Bug’ for Teddy Burke. The name stuck and over the years he became ‘Tatey Bug’ even when as an adult he had lost his impediment. At times, due to his compulsive and very hyper nature, this name was considered apropos."

And so with the brothers’ salvage, towing and barging business (of which they had become known as specialists across the Great Lakes’ region) starting to decline in the 1930s, they realized they had to diversify.

"For them, the Arlington's principal use and profitability was to haul grain in the early spring and late fall seasons and pulpwood in mid-season when the grain business wasn’t as busy," he wrote.

"For years, Fred had captained tug boats for his brothers by towing timber rafts and sailing vessels on Georgian Bay. But his longing to captain larger steamships and out of respect for Midland industrialist James Playfair, who owned the Georgian Bay Navigation Company (GBNC), he took to their larger vessels.

"One of Fred’s big ships, the S.S. Glenorchy, delighted him as he was having a good season on her until a very foggy night of October 29, 1924. While on Lake Huron near Michigan’s shoreline, the ‘Orchy’ was struck by the SS Leonard B. Miller.

"The Miller, only partially damaged, carried the ‘Orchy’ along allowing her crew to walk across their deck onto the Miller before the Glenorchy slid away and down. Fred was credited with heroism for saving an injured crewman on this occurrence, adding to the many tales that built his career as he had other groundings and mishaps that created his mystic."

Nicholls noted that in 1925, Fred Burke was captain on a Playfair vessel, the SS Glenisla and a year later, he became an employee of Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) following the transfer of the GBNC fleet."

On April 30, 1940, the Arlington departed the Lakehead (now Thunder Bay) bound for Owen Sound with a load of grain. In her wake, fate certainly was riding with her. Leaving just behind her was another vessel, the SS Collingwood captained by Midlander Thomas Carson, bound for Midland with a load of grain.

Nicholls noted that Carson decided to stay in the Arlington's wake as he knew she was fitted out with better navigation equipment than he possessed.

"The next day during breaks in a Lake Superior snowstorm, Carson noticed the Arlington was struggling," Nicholls recounted. "As the weather worsened, he wondered at the other ship’s changes of direction and reverses, but stayed his distance.

"Only when he realized she was in big trouble, did he get close. Through the snowstorm and huge waves, Carson glimpsed mate Junis Macksey readying lifeboats. Carson came to within 220 yards and prepared to take her hands aboard.

"Suddenly, the Arlington rolled unsteady to port, then back to starboard and then away and down. Recovered were 23 sailors, excluding the captain, who was not with them. It was not until they reached the Sault Ste. Marie locks that Carson was able to send a message to Midland that the Arlington was gone."

Reports indicate Burke was last seen near its pilothouse, waving at the Collingwood, minutes before his ship vanished into the lake.

But no one will ever know why Burke didn’t also seek refuge on the nearby ship, perhaps, he felt honour-bound to "go down with the ship."

Nicholls noted that upon the SS Collingwood’s arrival at Midland, an inquiry was scheduled for the following day. All survivors were cautioned to say nothing to anyone about the sinking. As they pulled to the dockside, they found the dock heavily crowded with family, friends and observers.

"The inquest started in Midland continued for several months in different locations," Nicholls noted, adding that for the best synopsis readers should explore Dwight Boyer's True Tales of the Great Lakes.

As for the remaining Burke brothers Nicholls said everything changed a year after the sinking.

"Captain David died suddenly leaving Captain Ed, the oldest brother, to run their affairs," Nicholls wrote. "He decided to shut down their company, but was still often called upon in the 1940s and 50(s) to assist with salvaging on the Great Lakes."

He spent his final year in 1958, on the bay, aboard his private yacht, the Captain Ed. And today what is heard of the Burke Brothers, their benevolence in the community or even their history?

Captains Edward and David Burke are entombed in a family mausoleum in the old military cemetery of St. James on-the-lines Anglican Church in Penetanguishene.

"There are memorial plaques on the wall of Midland’s St. Mark’s Anglican-Lutheran Church in memory of Captain David and Captain Frederick John Burke, not mentioned as ‘Tatey Bug!’

"And on the lawn in front of the church stands a tall white Carillon Tower in memory of Captain Edward and his wife Estelle. The bells toll every Sunday while the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer.

"As we hear the bells and say the prayer does anyone present wake the Arlington, the Burkes or their history? Perhaps they all pray to have an SS Collingwood in their wake?"

Andrew Philips

About the Author: Andrew Philips

Editor Andrew Philips is a multiple award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in some of the country’s most respected news outlets. Originally from Midland, Philips returned to the area from Québec City a decade ago.
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