Skip to content

In the wake of the Arlington: The day she rose again in Midland Harbour

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Arlington

(Midland resident Dean Nicholls first came to the area in 1950 and "immediately was amazed at the size of Severn Sound and the ships being built here at that time and decided that instead of being a farmer, like my grandfather, I would become a sailor!!!!!" Today is the first installment of a three-part series that will also run tomorrow and Sunday.)

If you walked the streets of my town of Midland today and asked a resident about the sinking of the SS Arlington you would get a stare, that puzzling look and nod of sympathy that you are asking a dumb question.

We have no old sailors occupying park benches under the railway canopy on the Town Dock anymore; they, the railway and the old canopy are all gone.  And only a few family members remember that two young junior hockey players, Ted Brodeur and Frank Swales, on their first trip ever as newly hired deckhands, were saved when their ship went down.

Their ship's captain kept them on a payroll all summer so they could play for Midland next season; this was important stuff then, now forgotten. Nobody remembers that as soon as the hearings on the disaster were completed, spring of 1941, that no evidence of negligence, irresponsibility or responsibility was placed on anyone’s record, insurance was paid and the issue quickly passed.

One family mourned the loss of a husband, father and brother, the Arlington’s Captain ‘Tatey Bug’ Burke. But Canada was at war, greater tragedies were being reported every hour. Local young men were being killed far away from home the community, as most would, moved on.

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.

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. Of Irish descent, the Burke brothers were great-grandsons of a British military soldier who like many others took military land grants in Canada upon retirement. They selected properties in and around the British naval and military establishment at Penetanguishene on Georgian Bay. 

Fred was known as a most capable, intuitive navigator using his special intelligence to navigate safely.  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.

With the brothers’ salvage, towing and barging business(of which they had become known as specialists across the Great Lakes’ region) started 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.

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.

In 1925, we find him captain on a Playfair vessel, the SS Glenisla. 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, bound for Midland with a load of grain.

As the CSL ship captained by Midlander Thomas Carson followed the Arlington away, Carson decided to stay in her 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. 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.

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 and continued for several months in different locations. I leave it for the reader to explore. My recommendation for the best synopsis is Dwight Boyer’s True Tales of the Great Lakes.

Everything changed, however, for the Burke Company a year after the sinking.

Captain David died suddenly leaving Captain Ed, the oldest brother, to run their affairs. He decided to shut down their company, but was still often called upon in the 1940s’ and 50’ 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 our community or even their history?

Captains Edward and David 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?