Tag Archives: Great Lakes Shipping

300 Lives Taken With The Horrific Sinking of the Lady Elgin on Lake Michigan

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?

A woodcut engraving of the collision from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

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 Lady Elgin, sinking, half an hour after she had been run into, off Winnetka, Illinois – New York Illustrated News

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.

Steamship City of Detroit III – A Floating Masterpiece

In Thumbwind’s popular post;  Great Lakes Cruising History – Luxurious Times, it pointed out that by the 1870s competition was forcing shipping companies to go beyond the bare bones of transport and create an experience for the traveling passenger or tourist.

It was the golden age of steamboat travel in the early 20th century. The race was on to get bigger, faster ships on the water, and Detroit’s City of Detroit III exemplified that elegance in both design, stature, and luxury with features that included a luxurious dining room, the only promenade deck, beautiful woodwork, gaslighting, and a parlor. The era ended with the last of these ships being burnt as firewood by a railroad magnate in the mid-1900s.

By the early 1900s, the golden era of steamship travel was in full swing and the race to put larger ships into service was evident. The steamship City of Detroit III exemplified that elegance.  

One of the Largest Sidewheel Steamships on the Great Lakes

City of Detroit III – Underway- Library of Congress

The steamship City of Detroit III was part of the Detroit & Cleveland Steamboat Line. The steamer was designed and built in 1911 by Frank E. Kirby. Kirby was considered the greatest naval architect of the Great Lakes. Called the “D-3” the ship operated from May 1912 until 1950.

D-III Ran from Detroit to Buffalo New York – Library of Congress

The ship was built by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company in Wyandotte, Michigan, and launched on Oct. 7, 1911. Costing an estimated $1.5 million, ($32m today) it was the largest paddlewheel ship on the Great Lakes at the time.  Standing over 50 feet high with a hull length of 455 feet. The paddle wheel was about 30 feet across and 8 feet wide. 

The style of the steamship City of Detroit III made it one of the most beautiful and luxurious ships on the Great Lakes. With a capacity to carry 2,000 passengers, this floating masterpiece was the first iron-hulled ship to operate on the Great Lakes. It became a favorite for tourists, who appreciated its large dining salon and bevy of amenities including an electric lighting system.

A Luxurious Interior Matching Ocean Liners – the Gothic Room

One of the highlights of the ship was the men’s smoking lounge called the Gothic Room. Situated around one of the smokestacks the work and glass made the lounge a standout for the traveling public.

D-III’s Gothic Room Salon Lounge – Library of Congress
D-III’s Gothic Room Fore Deck with Chandler  – Library of Congress
Tiffany Stained Glass of de LaSalle – Library of Congress

A highlight of the interior is a stained-glass window celebrating René-Robert Cavelier de LaSalle’s landing in Detroit. The lounge also contained a pipe organ and fireplaces for chilly days. 

The Staterooms Elegance on the Great Lakes

For overnight trips between Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo staterooms were available.  There were 25 parlor staterooms each with its own bathroom and veranda. Trimmed in local hardwoods and equipped with state-of-the-art electric fans and lights. It was a first-class accommodation by today’s standards.

City of Detroit III Presidents Stateroom – Library of Congress

The Steamship City of Detroit III also had 21 semi-parlors with private baths and 477 small staterooms. Travelers in the small rooms would have a bunk and share a bathroom.

The Palm Court

The Palm Court offered travelers an open sheltered area to get out of the chill and wind of the outside decks.

City of Detroit III Palm Court Looking Aft – Library of Congress

Located in the upper deck in the stern, it was furnished with wicker chairs and decorated with fresh flowers and an ivy-covered trellis with leaded glass along with the upper sconces of the walls.

City of Detroit III Palm Court Looking Forward – Library of Congress

The Grand Salon

Boarding passengers would pass through the Grand Salon on their way to their assigned staterooms. The Salon of the Steamship City of Detroit III was the focal point of the ship and boasted a gorgeous mural of Siren with Pan.

City of Detroit III Grand Salon Foreward – Library of Congress

The room was decorated with oak paneling and wicker furniture that impressed those who saw it and made them feel like they had been transported to a luxurious resort.

Two grand staircases on each end were graced with large classical paintings topped with a frieze.

City of Detroit III Grand Salon  Ceiling – Library of Congress

On the fore-end, with two prone women with tridents. The walls hosted smaller paintings of nymphs and angels.

City of Detroit III Grand Salon Aft – Library of Congress

Noted muralist William de Leftwich Dodge lead the effort to beautify the salon using mythical characters and soft colors that brightened the interior.

The focal point of the Salon was a mural of Siren with Pan. Dodge created the Siren mural inspired by the beauty of America’s first supermodel, Audrey Munson

City of Detroit III Grand Salon Mural of Siren with Pan – Library of Congress

The painting shows a nude Siren sitting on a rock, with Pan playing in the background. The painting is painted on canvas and then set against the wall in a plaster frame. Audrey Munson was recognized as America’s first supermodel because she appeared in many advertisements and calendars, including the famous silent film Purity. She also posed for several famous sculptures, including Civic Fame and Diana of the Tower. Munson lived most of her life in New York City and died in obscurity at the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg, where she was treated for depression and schizophrenia, for 65 years. She died there in 1996 at age 104.

Dodge used his experience creating murals to create this masterpiece to enhance the interior of Detroit’s finest ship. He was born in 1867, became an artist at 15 years old, and traveled to Europe to study art when he was 25 years old. He studied under William-Adolphe Bouguereau at Académie Julian in Paris from 1892 – 1895, and then returned to Detroit.

The sheer volume of art onboard this vessel is astounding, from murals to paintings on canvas (including one by George Grosz), to sculptures and ornate fixtures such as chandeliers that were sculpted with copper reliefs depicting sea life.

On Deck of the City of Detroit III

City of Detroit III Pilot House – Library of Congress

With the popularity of rail travel in the early 1900s, steamship companies recognized that the customer was looking for more than the basic transportation experience.  The City of Detroit is a great example of how the upper crust could take their summer journeys from mucky, dusty stagecoaches and rail trips to leisurely excursions on luxurious floating palaces. The ship’s amenities would have rivaled those of many grand hotels and coupled with unparalleled service, making it a favorite among its patrons. Great Lakes tours at this time drew visitors from around the world.

City of Detroit III – Hurricane Deck – Library of Congress

The Tragic End Of the SS City of Detroit III

The “final trace of wood” was scraped off the City of Detroit III in early November 1956, and its remains were sent to the Steel Corporation of Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, and destroyed in late March 1957. The cost of stripping it was significant due to the massive dismantling of all the woodwork and plaster required to access the steel structure. It was so high that alternate methods were explored to scape the other two steamers, Greater Detroit and the Eastern States. Tugs hauled the couple out onto Lake St. Clair in December 1956, and they were set on fire. Burning away all the beautiful woodwork and plaster made it easier—and less expensive—to get to the steel.

D&C Navigation was incorporated by the Denver-Chicago Trucking Company in 1960 thus ending the era of steamship travel on the Great Lakes.

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Presque Isle Dock – Loading 250 Tons Of Iron Ore in Marquette Michigan

The Presque Isle Dock near Marquette Michigan

For over 110 years the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad dock have loaded over 500 million tons of ore. The pocket dock was built in 1912 and is 1,250 feet in length, 60 feet wide, and rises 75-feet above the shoreline.

Ore Dock in Marquette Michigan

The loading structure contains 200 pockets, each capable of holding 250 tons of ore. While not unloaded,  simultaneously the dock has a total capacity of 50,000 tons. If You Go Be sure to visit the nearby Presque Isle Park. With its beaches and small rocky cliffs, there are numerous opportunities for great picture taking when the lake is rough.

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Michigan Plank Roads Craze Covered the State in The 1800s

Warship on the Great Lakes – USS Michigan


The Side-Wheel Steamer City of Alpena

The Steamer City of Alpena and the City of Mackinac were sister ships conducting service as part of the Detroit and Cleveland line. This 285-foot 2,000 horsepower sidewheel paddlewheel started service in 1893 and could carry up to 400 passengers and freight along the D&C’s “Coast Line to Mackinaw” run.

Steamer City of Alpena

City of Alpena Underway- Image Library of Congress

The ship ran the Lake Huron Route for 28 years. In 1921 she was moved to Lake Michigan and renamed the City of Saugatuck. By the late 1930s, the once-proud ship was reduced being rebuilt as a pulpwood barge hauling pulpwood and other freight. It was owned by several paper companies in its final years of service.  The ship was broken up for scrap in 1957.

D&C – Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company

Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company often abridged as D&C, was a passenger and freight shipping company on the Great Lakes. It operated a line of 10 ships from 1868 to 1951 and was known for its opulent ships. In 1924 the company built one of the largest steamships in the world. At 538 feet, the ship Greater Detroit was launched on September 15, 1923, primarily running sailing overnight from Detroit to Buffalo. It stayed in service until 1950.

The Start of Going up North

City of Alpena at Dock – Image Library of Congress

 Steamship Traveling on the Great Lakes in the 1880s gave rise to the term, “Going Up North”. Prior to the railroads and automobiles. Travel by steamship has gotten luxurious. Michigan’s tourism and resort areas began to grow because steamships could take a businessman from Chicago or Detroit to join families in northern Michigan Friday afternoon and return him Monday morning rested and refreshed and ready to work.

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Pigeon Michigan Amusement Parlor c1900

The Huge Forestville Dock and the Iron Chief Boat House

Very little is currently available online on this huge Forestville dock. So, we turned to some genealogical information to fill in the blanks. This is an excerpt from Forestville Mi Bicentennial History.

Forestville’s Huge Docks

The docks, or landings, built to handle lake shipping were maintained at a continual expense; but dockage, nonetheless, made a land-office business in the old days The original Forestville docks were made of logs cribs filled with stones, piling supporting the warehouse end of the pier. Their approaches were made down on the beach terrace, and neither of the docks ran straight out into the lake but stood at about a 15-degree angle from due east.

The number of docks destroyed by storm and ice is too many to enumerate, although both major docks sustained severe damage in 1859, 1876, and again in 1883, when the north (or Green) pier lost one crib and a 50-foot portion of piling. The winter gales swept away the majority of both docks in 1885, and only the north dock was entirely rebuilt.

At the time of the 1871 fire, the “Ward” dock was being run by Jake Buel, the local lumber king. Jake and Eber B. Ward rebuilt the dock after the fire and operated it until about 1877.*

The Docks Were An Economic Hub

In 1878, it was reported that bulk shipments from the Ward dock were infrequent. 11,000 sacks of wheat, 3,000,000 shingles, 70,000 feet of timber, 11,500 cedar posts, and 1200 cords of fuel were among them.

Frank Buchkowki, who lumbered the west township, was a frequent visitor to the Ward dock. He shipped a quarter-million feet of lumber and 100,000 shingles in a single season.

In 1880, a new item revealed that Tom Ward of Charleston had a massive amount of lumber swept off Ward pier after a major storm.

Freight pilfering was a constant annoyance, especially when the young guys learned that beer or wine shipments were on their way.

In 1878, criminals attacked a Ward Dock warehouse and stole a large quantity of Tenant’s yard goods cargo. However, they also seized “a half-barrel of beer, 100 pounds of peanuts, and a case of cigars… Maybe for a successful celebration.

Docks were a Community Gathering Spot

The docks became the economic centers of the shore towns, but they were also a social center as well. In small communities ” going down to meet the boat” was a welcome adventure. The old docks were never equipped with railings and it is a wonder that more people didn’t fall into the lake. A few did, some of them drunk and one fellow rubbernecking at the ladies along the boat rail rode his bicycle right off the dock end. Tom Potts, the drayman, once back his team off the docks. He unhooked them and they swam ashore.

The old dock afforded a fishing pier for the whole community. As far as I can remember, only worms were ever used for bait. The old-timers that I remember sometimes treated them more effective minnows, but we did sometimes resort to gaffs “or grab hooks to snag big perch when the water was clear, and they ignored our worms. Fishing from rowboat was unnecessary while the long docks stood.

According to local legend, there was just one deadly accident. It happened in 1885 when William Merckel took his five-year-old son out on the Corrin docks to observe the enormous seas that were raging that day. A massive wave slammed into the docks, carrying the child overboard. Mr. Merckel swam around seeking for him until he was weary and had to be dragged in with a line and buoy.*

*Excerpted from the Forrestville Bicentennial History