The Wreck of the Lady Elgin (9-8-1860)

Much of the time Lake Michigan looks like a big, peaceful pond.  We forget how dangerous it can be.  That was the lesson nature taught 154 years ago today.

The Lady Elgin was a wooden-hull, sidewheel steamship–the kind you’ve seen in all the old movies about riverboat gamblers.  The ship operated on Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee.  Late on the evening of September 6, 1860, the Lady Elgin left Milwaukee for the last time.

The 'Lady Elgin' in port

The ‘Lady Elgin’ in port

The ship had been chartered by the Irish Union Guard, a Milwaukee paramilitary club.  The group was going to Chicago either to buy weapons, or to hear a speech by presidential candidate Stephen Douglas–accounts vary.  About 350 people were making the trip.

The voyage south passed without incident.  The Irish Union Guard had their day in Chicago, then boarded ship to return home.  The Lady Elgin left port in heavy weather late on September 7.

About 2 the next morning, as the passengers slept, the ship was off Winnetka.  The storm had become a full-blown gale.  Suddenly the schooner Augusta appeared among the waves.  Before either ship could maneuver, the Augusta smashed into the Lady Elgin‘s side.

Captain Jack

Captain Jack

At first the damage to both ships seemed minor, and the Augusta proceeded on its way.  Then Captain Jack Wilson of the Lady Elgin discovered a large hole on the port side of his vessel.

Wilson tried to plug the hole with mattresses from the beds.  When the ship continued to sink, he ordered the 200 head of cattle in the hold driven overboard, to lighten the load.  Nothing worked.  Within twenty minutes of being rammed, the Lady Elgin broke apart and sank.

A few fortunate people managed to get into lifeboats.  A drummer from a brass band floated to safety on his bass drum.  Most of the others clung desperately to wreckage as the gale raged on.

On shore, word of the disaster spread.  Dozens of Good Samaritans roused themselves from bed, and came out in the storm to the lake.  There were many heroic rescues.  But the fierce weather hampered most efforts.

By morning it was over.  Thirty people survived.  No one knows how many had been lost, though estimates range as high as 400.  The wreck of the Lady Elgin remains Lake Michigan’s most deadly maritime disaster.

—30—

 

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