Make a visit to the Chicago Maritime Museum and you’ll learn much about the popular lake steamboat the “Lady Elgin” and the story of her sinking on Lake Michigan in September of 1860.
The Chicago Maritime Museum is located at 310 South Racine in the Helix Building. This is the venue to add to your next trip to Chicago as the museum unveils and highlights the history of Chicago as an important port city as well as the ships and steamers that operated from there.
The Lady Elgin
The Lady Elgin was a popular side wheel steamer built in Buffalo New York in 1851. As with most steamers of the era, her hull was made of wood. She was a ship that carried hundreds of passengers up and down Lake Michigan. She was considered a luxurious first rate steamer. In addition to runs on Lake Michigan, the Lady Elgin had made journeys from Chicago to Buffalo and Chicago to ports in Ontario Canada. She also had some sailings as far north as Lake Superior.
September 8, 1860
One of the worst Lake Michigan ship disasters occurred on the night of September 8th, 1860 just about ten miles off Winnetka Illinois. The Lady Elgin was rammed and almost cut in half by a fully loaded lumber schooner.
What made this a particularly deadly shipping disaster was that the Lady Elgin had a full compliment of passengers that evening and 297 of them lost their lives. What made this collision and sinking all the more unreal was that it occurred just ten miles from shore.
An Excursion to Chicago
The beginning of this deadly voyage actually started in Milwaukee Wisconsin early in the morning of September 7th. The Lady Elgin was filled with members of Wisconsin Democratic militias which chartered the ship for an excursion to Chicago with a planned return the following day. The militia would tour the city of Chicago, participate in a patriotic parade and then set out back to Milwaukee later in the evening. This trip was a show of solidarity with the Union cause as the question of Wisconsin’s loyalty to the Union was somewhat of a question at that time.
The Lady Elgin reportedly pulled out of Chicago at about 11:30P on the night of September 8th. It’s also been reported that she picked up additional passengers for the return trip to Milwaukee and probably had between 600 and 700 people on board.
There are stories that the Lady Elgin’s captain, Jack Wilson, was a bit concerned about the weather. Weather on the Great Lakes has a habit of changing dramatically and fast. The closer to the fall season, the more dangerous the lakes can become and on very short notice. This story is about a disaster that happened in 1860. Even today with the advancement in meteorology and modern navigation gear, Great lakes weather is still a large concern for lake freighters.
Regardless of any weather concerns the captain may have had, the Lady Elgin set sail. The captain’s decision may have been influenced by the number of passengers counting on getting back to Milwaukee as originally planned plus the fact that the steamer had a federal mail contract.
The Collision and Sinking of the Lady Elgin
What is known about the fatal collision on the night of September 8th, 1860 is as follows.
The Lady Elgin was fighting gale force winds when it left Chicago heading north along the shoreline. The schooner Augusta was sailing in this weather using only a single white light. The Augusta hit the Lady Elgin on her port side and while being damaged herself tore through the steamer leaving a huge hole on her side. The Augusta was damaged on the bow but was not taking on water.
After the collision the Augusta kept sailing south toward Chicago thinking that somehow the Lady Elgin must have continued her northward journey. This of course was a mistake. After the collision, and even though the captain ordered cargo and cattle to be thrown overboard, the Lady Elgin sunk in only about twenty minutes. Two lifeboats eventually reached shore, some survivors were taken off life rafts and still some managed to be rescued from floating debris.
The final records indicate that about 300 people died in this collision and sinking. The captain, Jack Wilson, also died.
Changes in Maritime Law
The investigation which followed the collision and sinking absolved the crew of the Lady Elgin of any blame. Interesting maritime law at the time gave sailing vessels the right of way over steamers. By the same token, sailing ships were not required to use running lights. As a direct result of this collision and the subsequent investigation, a new regulation was passed in 1864 requiring sailing vessels to carry full running lights.
The Discovery of the Lady Elgin
The wreck of the Lady Elgin was discovered in 1989 in about fifty feet of water off Highwood Illinois. Today, the vessel is a destination for divers. Permission to dive the wreck is required from the Lady Elgin Foundation. Most artifacts have long been taken away and the dive is essentially an interesting recreational endeavor. The shipwreck site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a visit to the Chicago Maritime Museum offers one of the best ways to learn about the rich history of Great Lakes shipping, both passenger and cargo shipping.
Another excellent site is the Dossin Great lakes Museum located on Belle Isle in Detroit Michigan. Belle Isle is an island in the middle of the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario Canada.
(Photos and images from the public domain. U.S. public domain. Edmund Fitzgerald anchor courtesy GNU Free Licensing Annebethmi at English Wikipedia)