Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Sinking of the PS Lady Elgin on September 8, 1860.

The PS Lady Elgin (paddle steamer) was a double-decked, wood-hull, sidewheel steamship that sank in Lake Michigan off the fledgling town of Port Clinton, Illinois, whose geography is now in the City of Fort Sheridan, after she was rammed by the schooner Augusta of Oswego in Gale force winds in the early hours of Saturday, September 8, 1860. 

The Lady Elgin kept no passenger manifest. The sinking of the Lady Elgin resulted in the loss of about 339 lives in what was called "one of the greatest marine horrors on record."

The Lady Elgin was spacious, elegantly appointed, and could carry 200 cabin passengers, 100 deck passengers, a crew of 43, and about 800 tons of freight. It was named after the wife of Lord Elgin, Governor-General of Canada, from 1847 to 1854. It had been hired by members of the Irish Union Guard (IUG) of Milwaukee’s third ward to taxi them from Milwaukee to Chicago (a $1 round trip IUG member special) and back, to hear democratic campaign speeches, with the headliner being presidential candidate, Stephen A. Douglas. 

The Lady Elgin departed Milwaukee with Captain Jack Wilson, on Thursday night, September 6, 1860, from the "Dooley, Martin, Dousman & Co." docks, headed to Chicago. The Lady Elgin could make the one-way trip from Milwaukee to Chicago, approx. 100 miles, in around 6-7 hours in calm waters.
Lady Elgin docked at a Chicago River wharf. 
Arriving around dawn, the group spent all day Friday, the 7th, in Chicago. Although the Milwaukee visitors could not see Douglas (for some unknown reason), they took pleasure in visiting Chicago places Douglas frequented and attending other politicians' speeches.

Embarking passengers were treated to a party atmosphere and were entertained by a German brass band on the upper deck of the brightly lit Lady Elgin. Along with the IUG group returning home, additional paying passengers boarded bound for Milwaukee, bringing the total to approximately 450 people, which overloaded the ship.
 The return trip finally departed at 11:30 pm Friday night. After an hour, the storm soon picked up to Gale force (40–55 mph sustained surface) winds. Most retired to their cabins.

The fog was so thick, you couldn't see 20 feet in front of you, the storm clouds raged, producing lightning and thunder that wouldn't stop, and the waves, in excess of 20 feet, splashing over the ship's deck

Around 2:30 am, the Lady Elgin was steaming northward against the wind. The Augusta was sailing south by east under all sails except the gaff-topsail. The steamer had all her lights set, the schooner was sailing using only a single white light, mounted on a five-foot Samson on the bow A half-hour before the collision, the second mate of the Augusta, on watch, saw the steamer's lights, and for 20 minutes, no orders were given. Evidence taken before the coroner's inquest showed that Captain D.M. Malott of the Augusta, who had come forward, seemed bent on passing to the starboard of the Lady Elgin instead of on the steamer's larboard (port) side, according to rule. 
Shortly before the collision, Capt. Malott ordered his helm head up, but she came straight on the steamer's midship port side, smashing a gaping hole through the gangway, tearing off the paddle wheel, cutting through the guards and hull, and into the cabins.

Augusta’s heavy load of lumber shifted from the sporadic steep pitch and roll and crests and troughs of the Gale churned waters. The Augusta rammed the port side (left) of the Lady Elgin in front of the paddlewheel, damaging her own bowsprit and headgear while holing the Lady Elgin below her waterline.
The collision forces caused most of the Lady Elgin's oil lamps to extinguish, plunging the passengers into confusing darkness. The captain and the first mate, who was sleeping when the incident occurred, hurriedly dressed to check out the extent of the damage. Captain Wilson went below deck to find water quickly filling the engine room. Meanwhile, First Mate George Davis immediately determined that the ship was in danger and ordered the crew to turn it toward shore.
The Schooner Augusta of Oswego.
The Augusta slams into the Lady Elgin.
Aboard the Augusta, Captain Malott and his crew tried to quickly ascertain the extent of the damage to his ship. They looked for the Lady Elgin and, not seeing the ship, assumed it had only received a glancing blow and had continued on its way. Concerned that his own vessel might sink, Captain Malott ordered the crew to continue sailing to Chicago as quickly as possible. 

The Lady Elgin, however, had a gaping hole in its side. Captain Wilson ordered that the cargo and the 50 head of cattle be thrown overboard to lighten the ship. Instead, the ship’s steward tried to use mattresses to plug the hole in the hull. Although the Lady Elgin broke apart within twenty minutes, two lifeboats managed to reach the shore, carrying about 18 people. Captain Wilson tried to rescue the remaining passengers, helping them grab onto rafts and flotsam (wreckage and cargo of a ship found floating). More than 350 people were awaiting rescue in the morning, although, during the day, when the storm continued, many of them were pulled under the surface of the lake.
With a large hole in its side, the Lady Elgin sank within one-half hour. People were only able to get in two of the lifeboats. The large upper 'hurricane deck' fell straight into the water and served as a raft for forty people.
The ships crashed ten miles off the shore of Port Clinton. The waves were so strong that survivors, bodies, and debris were swept down to the northern shore of Winnetka. At that time, the lakeshore in this area consisted of a narrow strip of beach rising up to clay cliffs almost 50 feet high. The storm had churned up an angry line of breakers. 

Around 6:30 am. the first of the two lifeboats made it to shore in the vicinity of the Jared Gage house in Winnetka.
The Jared Gage House, 1175 Whitebridge Hill Road, Winnetka, Illinois.
Immediately a call for assistance went out from the Gage house. Winnetka residents rode horses down to Northwestern University and the Garrett Biblical Institute to find young men to help pull out survivors. 

The Winnetka telegraph office spread the news to regional newspapers. In addition, the newly completed line for the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad ran trains to bring people to Winnetka (today's first responders) to help as word of the accident spread.

The Gage house served as a hospital and morgue. All 100 residents of Winnetka pulled passengers from the chilly water and carried them up the 100 steps to the Gage house.

In 1946 Dwight Clark captured the scene: "Crowds on the bluffs and beaches soon began to notice pieces of wreckage wash up near the site of the present Winnetka water tower… By ten o’clock, the scene from the bluffs was a panorama of what remained of the brave souls that were stout enough to endure the fury of the night. And now, in plain view of the watchers, came the last portion of the hurricane deck raft, with Captain Wilson and eight of his dwindled flock whom the storm had thus far spared… Now before the eyes of everyone, this storm-battered remnant was finally dashed to pieces on an offshore sandbar, and all on board were lost."

The storm left a tremendous undertow, creating the tragic situation that Clark describes: the exhausted victims had drifted close enough to the Winnetka shore to see it and be seen but were unable to cross the breakers and died in full view of the people onshore. Men were lowered from the bluff with a rope tied around their waists in attempts to pull people into safety; one Evanston seminary student, Edward Spencer, is credited with saving 17 lives. Another man, Joseph Conrad, was said to have pulled 28 to safety; other unknown rescuers pulled in survivors up and down the Winnetka and North Shore coastline.

The Gage house, the Artemas Carter house, and other Winnetka residences served as temporary hospitals; the newly-built Winnetka train depot served as a morgue. Winnetka residents brought food and clothing for the survivors. It is estimated that 339 people lost their lives that day; the 1860 census shows only 130 residents in the town of Winnetka.

The tragedy captured the nation’s attention but was quickly overshadowed by the 1860 elections and the Civil War. However, interest was revived again when an 1861 song, “Lost on the Lady Elgin” by Henry C. Work, experienced great popularity. Debris from the Lady Elgin served as a playground for generations of Winnetka children.
LISTEN TO: "Lost on the Lady Elgin"

No one will ever know how many drowned in the lake off Winnetka or die on the rocks just offshore. Bodies continued to wash ashore well into December, some of them almost 80 miles from the wreck. Many of those aboard the Lady Elgin was never found. Those who could be identified were returned to Milwaukee for burial. An unknown number of unfortunate souls were buried in a mass grave in Highwood, not far from the Port Clinton Lighthouse, a place that has since been lost to time.

Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, the Lady Elgin owner, received $12,000 from his insurance claim.

With several other lesser ones in the next few years, this major wreck had much to do with arousing Congress to install the Grosse Pointe Lighthouse at Evanston in 1873. It also led to establishing the famous Northernwestern University Coast Guard Crews under Captain Lawrence O. Lawson and improving maritime regulations.
This marker is mounted on the wall of a building located at 102 North Water Street at East Erie Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The loss of the sidewheel steamship Lady Elgin was one of Lake Michigan’s most tragic maritime disasters. On September 8th, 1860, the ship, returning to Milwaukee from Chicago, sank following a collision nine miles off Winnetka, Illinois. Milwaukee’s Irish Union Guards had chartered the grand Lady Elgin for a special Chicago benefit trip to raise funds to purchase new weapons. Wisconsin’s Governor Alexander Randall, an opponent of the federal fugitive slave law, suspected the Union Guards of disloyalty to the state because they supported the fugitive slave law. Randall ordered the unit to disband and confiscated the Guards’ weapons. In defiance, Union Guards commander Garrett Barry sought to arm the unit independently from the state.

Aboard the ship were more than 500 Union Guards supporters, mostly from the city’s Irish Third Ward, including city officials, members of two German militia units, and the Milwaukee City Band. In the early morning hours, the ship was struck amidships by an unlit, overloaded lumber schooner, the Augusta. At least 300 lives were lost, decimating the Irish Third Ward community.

Compiled by Dr. 
Neil Gale, Ph.D.

The Chicago Tribune, Monday, September 10, 1860.
The steamer Lady Elgin sinks claiming about 339 persons on September 8, 1860.

A most appalling calamity has burst upon our community, and the other communities yet to be thrilled with the intelligence of a disaster which has just occurred on this lake [Michigan], without parallel in the marine annals of the lakes. Other vessels have been lost amid scenes of horror that will cause them long to be remembered, but at the head of 'Lake' disasters will ever stand the fearful loss of the sidewheel steamer, Lady Elgin. Each recurrence of the anniversary of the night of September 8th will be observed by hundreds of broken hearts with tears and anguish for years. 

The schooner, the Augusta of Oswego, Captain D.M. Malott, came into our port early Saturday morning and reported that on the night previous, about midnight, she had collided with a large steamer on this lake, a few miles out of this city. The Augusta has suffered seriously in the encounter from the loss of her headgear and was leaking badly. In addition, she had a full cargo of lumber, which had shifted in the collision, in which she struck head-on. Unfortunately, the Captain knew nothing of the extent of the disaster to the other vessel.

Almost simultaneously with her arrival came tidings from Evanston that brought the rest of the tale, in the intelligence of disaster that by eight o'clock a.m. filled our streets and places of the public resort with anxious inquirers, when it was known that the steamer, in the encounter with the Augusta was the Lady Elgin, Captain Jack Wilson, which left this port on Friday evening in her regular departure for Lake Superior. In that line, she had run for some seasons past.

On Friday morning, the steamer Lady Elgin last left Milwaukee on a regular charter from the Irish Union Guard from that city. It brought about three hundred excursionists, gentlemen, and ladies, into Chicago, where the party passed the day to interchange hospitalities and socialities usual to such occasions. On her return, she left as stated on her regular trip to Lake Superior, taking about fifty cabin passengers for Mackinac and pleasure points north, added to the excursion party.

The appalling intelligence came to hand that in a collision with the Lady Elgin, the heavy Augusta struck the Lady Elgin midship, cutting it nearly in two. The Lady Elgin sunk about twelve miles off Port Clinton, sixteen miles north of Chicago.

The early Waukegan train on the Chicago and Milwaukee road, having passengers on board from the North, the clerk, and mate of the [Lady] Elgin, brought the first detailed intelligence of the painful disaster. The terrible news rapidly spread from person to person, and not more than an hour elapsed before it was heard in the outermost streets of the city. A rush to the office of Mesars Hubbard & Hunt, on South Water street, and that of A.T. Spencer & Co., the boat owners, began as soon as the intelligence got abroad. All day long, they were besieged by anxious crowds of those who had friends or relatives aboard and by the thousands of sympathizers who made the cause of the sufferers their own.

Groups of men at every street corner, anxiously discussing the cause and consequences of the awful calamity, were a constant feature of the day. The business of the town was forgotten. On Change, in shops, hotels, offices, and stores, the disaster was the theme. As they were sent down on the trains run on the occasion, the saved were soon surrounded by inquiring crowds, and in many cases, before they were permitted to get off their wet clothing, were compelled to halt and repeat the fearful tale over and over again. Yet, on the other hand, every new item, every gleam of hope, every subtraction from the number of the lost was joyfully received.

At Spencer & Co's, the Agents, the inquiries for friends were most frequent and pressing. Many a hope was dashed, many a heart was smitten with despair, and many a wail went up there. Men, women, and boys came tumbling in and went weeping out.

The excitement continued to a late hour. The issue of an extra from the office of the Press and Tribune, just before noon, containing the meager particulars that had come to hand, only served to whet the public appetite for more. Finally, the hotels were filled in the evening, and not until midnight arrived, and the details were thoroughly discussed, did the crowds there sensibly abate. It was a day the Chicago will long remember.

With commendable humanity and promptness, Superintendent Baldwin of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, placed at the disposal of the owners of the [Lady] Elgin and numerous friends of the passengers, a special train which with the Coroner, Physicians, and a large party of citizens, left this city following the regular train at 9:45 a.m. for Winnetka, where the disaster occurred.

Friday evening set in with the wind moderately high, though not such as would have deterred the [Lady] Elgin from leaving; yet it is still likely she would have lain by, but for the return excursion party, who had made no calculations on remaining over. Soon after she left, however, and scarcely could she have got outside the post, a heavy thunderstorm came up about midnight, accompanied by an increase of wind, which grew to a perfect Gale. In such a commotion of the elements, the collision took place, the sea running high, the Gale increasing throughout the night, and most of Saturday.

On the beach in Winnetka, at around 10 am. on Saturday the 8th, the surf was rolling in heavily and breaking in thunder along the beach, the Gale having risen to a fearful fury, from the north-east, and thus nearly onshore. The shore there is an uneven bluff, ranging from thirty to sixty feet in height, with a narrow strip of beach at its base. At some points, the heavy surf made directly against the bold bluff. However, at most points, a narrow tract intervened unwashed by the waves and so affording a place and foothold for the operations for rescue.

The whole beach for three miles was strewed with fragments of the light upper portions of the ill-fated steamer. Then, out to sea, where the waves were rolling more heavily than is usually seen, even in our September Gales, the surface of the angry waters for miles in extent, as far as the eye could reach, was dotted with fragments of the wreck with what were clearly made out to be human beings clinging to them. At this time (10 am), various authorities make out that from eighty to one hundred persons could have been counted driving at the mercy of the maddened elements, towards the high, rolling breakers and surf washed beach and bluff, their progress, and with pale cheeks noted, as alas, too many, met their fate in the waves.

The work of rescue began about 5 am., a little north of Winnetka, near the country seat of Mr. Gage, where the earliest intelligence was received by the survivors who came ashore in the steamer's yawl, among whom was the Steward, Mr. Rice, to who wrote the narrative we refer to. This boat was followed by another, the last reaching the shore a little later. The neighborhood was aroused. Word was sent to the dwellings at the station below, and a party of men was preparing to go up to the vicinity where the boats had landed when their attention was drawn to their own shore as still more painfully to be the scene of the perils and loss of life, and noble daring of the day. The wind not being directly onshore carried each later arrival a little further south. Now rafts bearing human beings were seen nearing Winnetka, where the country residence of Ex-Alderman Carter of this city occupies the high bluff.

Parties of men were on the alert and ready for the work of rescue. Word was sent to Evanston, and citizens and its entire student community came up in force. Attention was first directed to a large raft coming in steadily but bravely over the waves, upon which were standing a large group of human beings, since known to have been some fifty in number. Around and beyond it on all sides were single survivors and groups of two or three, or more, but painful interest centered about the fate of that larger raft. Finally, it neared the seething line of surf. With a glass, those onshore could see that the company on board seemed to obey the orders of one. Ther ladies and children were there - hearts on shore forgot to beat for an instant and then saw the raft break and disappear in the seas. Of the entire number onboard, only fifteen names appear in our list of the saved. Of the lost was the braveheart who tried his best to save those committed to his charge and perished in the attempt Captain Jack Wilson, the commander of the unfortunate steamer.

The work of rescue, however, did not pause in the agony that wrung the hearts onshore. Men, residents of Winnetka and Evanston stripped off all superfluous clothing and with ropes tied about them, held onshore, dashed nobly into the surf and only by such peril wrested the saved of the wreck. Where many wrought so well, we cannot here particularize. Still, we accord the universal sentiment of the day in the assertion that the Theological teachings of the Garrett Biblical Institute must include a liberal amount of "Muscular Christianity," for  Mesars, Spencer, and Combs of that institution were foremost among the heroes of the day.

Thenceforward the scene on the shore until two P.M., when the last survivor was drawn out of the surf, was a scene which the lookers-on will never forget. Of its nature, the best proof is the fact that the from forty to fifty persona saved was less than one-third of the number that came in from the lake to pass the fearful gauntlet of the line of breakers, several hundred feet offshore, was under the very eyes and almost within hail of those onshore, we saw the majority perish. The rafts would come into the line of surf, dip to the force of the waves and then turn completely over. Again and again would raft containing from one to five or more persons gradually near the shore and then be lost where a stone's cast would reach them, yet really as far from human help as if in mid-ocean.

The scenes of these fearful houses would fill a volume. The episode of the saving of the gallant James E. Evison, of Milwaukee, with his wife in his arms, left few dry eyes among the spectators. He had secured himself and his precious burden to the severed roof of the pilothouse, a stout octagonal, canvas-covered frame. As this came in, he was seen upon it holding in one arm women. Again and again, the waves broke over them, and more than once, both were submerged. Still, they came on, passed the first breakers, and midway thence to the shore, their raft grounded, from some projection beneath. There it hung, beaten and swept by a roller after roller, and for minutes making no progress, while the breathless spectators not two hundred feet distant watched and waited for the result.

Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

An incomplete compiled list of those that perished on the Lady Elgin. There was no passenger manifest kept.

ARNOLD, George
BARRON, Mrs. John
BARRY, Capt. G
BARRY, son of Capt. G.
BASS, Henry
BLOSS, Phillip
BOHAN, Mrs. T. +child
BULFIN, Thomas
BURNS, Fannie
BURNS, James
BURNS, Michael
BURNS, William
CANNON, Patrick
CORCORAN, unknown
CUDDEHEA, Stephen +son
CURTIN, Lizzie
CURTIN, Thomas
DELANEY, Patrick +wife
DELURY, John +wife
DIEHL, Elins
DOERLEY, (Doerly) Martin
DRESSER, William
DUNNER, Honora
DWYER, Michael +daughter
DWYRE, Mrs. William
ELLIS, Mrs. Mary
EVISTON, T.H. +wife
FAHEY, Patrick +wife & daughter
FANNING, Elizabeth
FERBY, George +wife
FITZGERALD, P. +sister
FLYNN, Annie
FOLEY, Paul +son & niece
GARTH, William
GRADE, Mrs. +son
HANLEY, Mathew +sister (Susan)
HANNA, Theodore C.
HAYS, Mrs. (daughter of T.O'Brien)
HAYS, William H.
HERT, Fred
HINEL??, Godfrey
HORAN, John - deputy US Marshal
INGRAM, Hon Herbert +son
JERVIS, Mrs. J. (daughter of T.Koegh)
JOHNSON, Charles (son of Dr. Johnson)
KENNEDY, Mrs. T. +child
KENNEDY, Phillip
KILROY, James +wife & child
KOEGH, Agnes (daughter of T.Koegh)
KOMAICK, A. +brothers
LEYDEN, Amelia
LUMSDEN, Col. Francis Asbury
LYNCH, Bloss
MCCORMICK, Frank (brother)
MCCORMICK, Martha Jane (sister)
McDONOUGH, Patrick
McGEE, Ann
McGILL, Thomas
McGRATH, Michael
McGRATH, Patrick
McLAUGHLIN, Elizabeth
McMAAUS, Sarah
MONAHAN, unknown +children
MURPHY, Sarah F.
MURPHY, Stephen
NICHOLS, Christian
O'BRIEN, Mrs. Tim
O'BRIEN, Richard
O'GRADY, John +wife
O'HEARN, Margaret
O'LEARY, Daniel +son
O'MAHONEY, Cornelius
O'NEILL, Thomas
OAKLEY, George F.
POINEROY, William C.
PURTELL, Michael
QUAIL, John F.
QUINLAN, Patrick
RAPP, unk
REIS, Anton
RICE, James
RICE, Mrs. James +child
RICH, Michael
RILEY, Peter
RING, Robert +wife
ROONEY, Christopher
ROONEY, John +wife
ROONEY, Patrick
RYAN, John +wife
S??k, Amelia
SEVLIN, Mrs. Mary
SHEA, James
SHEBAN, Thomas
SHEHAN, Bridget
SPELLIN, Michael
THOMAS, Jeremiah
VULL, James
WAEGLI, Samuel
WARD, Mary
WEAVER, Michael
WILLIAMS, Allen +wife
WILSON, Capt. Jack
WILSON, William
WOOLMAN, unknown


  1. My Great-Grandfather lost his brother and sister-in-law on the Lady Elgin. Thank you a great accounting of this tragedy.

  2. I once dove the wreck. The diveboat's captain told us that so many Irish politicians were killed that Milwaukee's politics skewed German afterwards. I've never been able to verify that, do you have any idea?

  3. Port Clinton was just South of Fort Sheridan. St. Johns settlement very similar to Port Clinton was in the S.E. corner of where the fort was located. Some of the bodies that were buried in Highwood were reburied in Half Day. H.P. was not incorporated that the time. Port Clinton and Half Day werenvery tied in Trade. Jointly they tried to build the Plank road, nick named the Corduroy Road. We would know it as Half Day rd. Or Rt 22. I believe Mr. Mower had something to do with the reburials, because he live near the Highwood burial site and was very involved with Port Clinton, H.P. and Half Day.


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