There are tens of thousands of shipwrecks at the bottom of the Great Lakes. Some are famous, such as the sinking of Edmond Fitzgerald in 1975. In 1913 an extreme storm dubbed the White Hurricane sank eight ships and took 187 lives over six hours on November 9, 1913. However, these incidents pale in comparison to one tragic incident of the sinking of the Lady Elgin in the Fall of 1860.
What Was the Steamship Lady Elgin?
The Lady Elgin was a magnificent sight on Lake Michigan, but the sidewheeler’s short-lived life. It launched in May 1851, built in Buffalo, New York. The 252-foot wooden steamship was named after the wife of Canada’s Governor General of Canada from 1847 to 1854, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin. In the mid to late 1800s, steamships were the primary way to travel between Great Lakes cities as railways and roads were yet to be widely in place.
The wooden-hulled sidewheel steamship ran passengers and freight from Chicago to Buffalo and Collingwood, Ontario. During her nine years in service, the ship suffered many incidents; she was sunk once in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, caught fire, struck a reef at Copper Harbor, Michigan, and had several mechanical failures.
What Happened During the Final Voyage of the Lady Elgin?
Lady Elgin left Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for Chicago on September 6, 1860, carrying Milwaukee’s Union Guard members to hear Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln’s opponent, give a campaign address, albeit there is no solid historical proof that Douglas spoke. Onboard the Lady Elgin, 300 men and women spent the day of September 7 listening to political lectures, followed by an evening of entertainment by a German brass band.
That night, in gale-force winds, she was rammed by the schooner Augusta of Oswego. It had been heading out from Milwaukee when it had met up with the storm and turned back. Its captain also decided that it would be safer to try riding out the storm until it abated rather than make for port in such heavy weather.
Lady Elgin and Augusta collided near Winnetka with such force that they almost split each other openly. Within 20 minutes, Lady Elgin was breaking apart and sinking.
350-400 passengers and crew were now drifting in stormy waters, holding on to anything they could as waves crashed over them repeatedly. Many were pulled under by breakers nearshore, while others held on desperately to lose their grip soon after.
The Lady Elgin sank in Lake Michigan ten miles off the fledgling town of Port Clinton, Illinois, whose geography is now divided between Highland Park and Highwood, Illinois,
What Happened After the Sinking of the Lady Elgin?
The most significant impact of the sinking of the Lady Elgin was that it led to new laws regarding lighting on passenger ships in the Great Lakes.
It took three years after the wreck of the Lady Elgin for a new law to be passed. The Lady Elgin disaster remains the most significant loss of life on open water in the Great Lakes history. Some believe it might have been prevented if better communication and night navigation equipment had been better. In 1864, a new ruling required sailing vessels to carry running lights.
Since there were still nearly 1,900 ships under sail by 1870, these regulations were long overdue.
Is There a Memorial for the Lady Elgin?
There are several memorials throughout Wisconsin to commemorate the devastating loss of life. A Wisconsin Historical Marker in the historic third ward in Milwaukee commemorates the tragedy. Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee has a monument dedicated to the Lady Elgin disaster and the many lost in the tragedy. A memorial song called “Lost on the Lady Elgin” was sung at family gatherings.
With assistance from private donors and public funds (through a Department of Tourism grant), The Milwaukee Irish Heritage and Cultural Center have recently spearheaded a $200,000 project for a mammoth, two-story bronze memorial statue for this disaster that could become one of Wisconsin’s top tourist attractions. However, there is little information on the status of this effort.
Where is the Wreak of the Lady Elgin?
If you want to visit the wreck of Lady Elgin, you can. She lies in Lake Michigan, near Highwood, Illinois. The wreck was discovered in 1989 by Harry Zych and later explored by the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago.