PS Lady Elgin

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Lady Elgin at Dock

Coordinates: 42°11′00″N 87°39′00″W / 42.1833333°N 87.65°W / 42.1833333; -87.65

Career (United States) 60px
Name: Lady Elgin
Operator: Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard
Builder: Bidwell and Banta
Buffalo, New York
Completed: 1851
Fate: Sunk in collision with schooner Augusta of Oswego September 8, 1860
Notes: First enrollment issued at Buffalo, New York November 5, 1851
General characteristics
Class and type: Sidewheel steamer - passengers and package freight
Tonnage: 1037.70 gross[1]
Length: 252 ft (77 m)[1]
Beam: 32.66 ft (9.95 m)[1]
Height: 13 ft (4.0 m) [1]
Notes: Wood hull vessel

The SS Lady Elgin was a wooden-hulled sidewheel steamship that sank in Lake Michigan off Chicago, Illinois after she was rammed by the unlit schooner Augusta in the early hours of September 8, 1860. The passenger manifest was lost with the collision, but the sinking of the Lady Elgin resulted in the loss of more than 400 lives in what was called "one of the greatest marine horrors on record." Four years after the disaster, a new rule required sailing vessels to carry running lights. The Lady Elgin disaster remains the greatest loss of life on open water in the history of the Great Lakes.[2] Her shipwreck was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.


The Lady Elgin was built in 1851 in Buffalo, New York at a cost of $95,000. She was named after the wife of Lord Elgin, Canada's Governor General from 1847 to 1854.[3] During her time, the wooden-hulled sidewheeler was one of the most elegantly appointed passenger ships plying the Great Lakes. Rated a first-class steamer, she was a favorite with the traveling public. Early in her career she ran between Buffalo and Chicago, then later between Chicago and Collingwood, Ontario. For many of her last seasons, she was the line between Chicago and other Lake Michigan ports and Lake Superior.[4]

During the Lady Elgin's career she was involved in numerous accidents. She sank and was repaired in 1854 after striking a rock at Manitowoc, Wisconsin. In 1855, she was towed to Chicago after an accident to her machinery. In 1857, she was damaged by fire. In June 1858, she struck a reef at Copper Harbor, Michigan. In August 1858, she was stranded on Au Sable Point Reef in Lake Superior. In October 1859, she was towed to Marquette, Michigan after breaking her crossbeam. In November 1859, she was towed again when her crank pin broke near Point Iroquois, Michigan.[5] Her final blow came in 1860 when she was rammed by the wooden schooner Augusta ten miles from shore. In 1899, Great Lakes historian J.B. Mansfield called the Lady Elgin's sinking "one of the greatest marine horrors on record".[4]

Final voyage

On the night of September 6, 1860 the Lady Elgin left Milwaukee, Wisconsin from the Dooley, Martin, Dousman, and Company Dock, for Chicago, carrying members of Milwaukee's Union Guard to hear a campaign speech by Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln's opponent, although there is no clear historical evidence that Douglas actually appeared. Three hundred men and women spent the day of September 7 listening to political speeches followed by an evening of entertainment by a German brass band on board the Lady Elgin.[3] On the return trip that night , the brightly lit Lady Elgin was steaming through Lake Michigan against gale force winds when she was rammed by the schooner Augusta of Oswego. The Augusta was sailing without lights and did not attempt to turn to her larboard side, a customary rule of the sea and lakes.[4][6] On the morning of the collision (September 8) at 2:30 am, most of the passengers had retired for the night but there was dancing in the forward cabin.[4]

Concerned that she was damaged and believing the Lady Elgin had gotten safely away, the Augusta made for Chicago. Aboard the Lady Elgin, Captain Wilson ordered that cattle and cargo be thrown overboard to lighten the load and raise the gaping hole in the Lady Elgin's port side above water level while the steward was down in the coal bunker trying to stop the leak with mattresses.[4][7] Captain Wilson ordered a lifeboat lowered on the starboard side to check the extent of the damage but it never regained the steamer. Within twenty minutes, the Lady Elgin broke apart, and all but the bow section rapidly sank. The night was lighted up at intervals by flashes of lightning showing the scattered wreckage.[4]

The life preservers, 2 in (5.1 cm) hardwood planks, 5 ft (1.5 m) long and 18 in (46 cm) wide, were never used.[3] Two boats with 18 persons reached shore. Fourteen people were saved on a large raft and many others on parts of the wreckage.[4] The drummer of the German band, Charles Beverung, saved himself by using his large bass drum as a life preserver.[3] Survivors reported the heroic efforts of Captain Wilson to save about 300 persons collected on a raft.[4] When day broke, between 350 and 500 passengers and crew were drifting in stormy waters, holding on to anything they could, many only to be pulled under by breakers near shore.

Students from Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute were watching the shore on the morning of September 8, looking for survivors. One of the students, Edward Spencer, is credited with rescuing 17 passengers over the course of six hours. He sustained injuries during his rescue efforts that caused him to be an invalid for the rest of his life. A plaque in his honor was first placed in the Northwestern University Gymnasium, and is now housed in the Northwestern University Library. [8][9]

More than 400 people are believed to have died in the sinking, including Captain Wilson, who was lost trying to save two women when he was caught by the surf and forced into the rocks[10]. Most were from Milwaukee's German Jaeger Clubs and Third Ward Irish communities, including nearly all of Milwaukee's Irish Union Guard[11]. It is said that more than 1000 children were orphaned by the tragedy. The Lady Elgin disaster remains the greatest loss of life on open water in the history of the Great Lakes.[2]


File:Sinking of The Lady Elgin sign 7930.jpg
State of Wisconsin Historical Marker for the Lady Elgin

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 who are buried there. For many years in central Canada the memorial song "Lost on the Lady Elgin" was sung at family gatherings and social occasions.[3] The Milwaukee Irish Heritage and Cultural Center has spearheaded a $200,000 project for a mammoth, two-story bronze memorial statue for the Lady Elgin disaster.[12]

Maritime rulings

Following the wreck, the ship's owner, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, received a $12,000 payment from his insurance company, but neither Hubbard nor the insurance company accepted abandonment of the ship. The Captain of the Augusta, Darius Malott, was arrested and tried in Chicago, but found not guilty of navigational negligence.[6] A coroner's jury declared the second-mate, Mr. Budge of the Augusta, to be incompetent, and the crew of the Augusta to be of principal blame.[13] However, steamboat historian Charlebois noted that after the investigation, Captain Malott of the Augusta and the crew and owners of the Lady Elgin were absolved of any blame . He reported:

The judgement was based on a law that not only gave sail and the right of way over steam, but did not require sailing vessels to carry running lights. Apparently the Augusta had sighted the passenger steamer twenty minutes before the collision but in the rain had misjudged the distance between them. Four years after the disaster, in 1864, a new ruling was made requiring sailing vessels to carry running lights. Since there were still still nearly 1,900 ships under sail by 1870 the regulations were long overdue.[3]


The wreck of the Lady Elgin was discovered in 1989 off Highwood, Illinois by Harry Zych, who was awarded ownership in 1999 after a protracted legal battle. The wreck, consisting of four main debris fields lying in 50 and 60 feet (15 and 18 m) of water, has been stripped of artifacts through the years. Divers must obtain permission from Harry Zych and the Lady Elgin Foundation,[14] and are expected to observe the preservation laws governing historic sites.[15] The wreck site has been cataloged by the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago. The Lady Elgin shipwreck was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Lady Elgin". Historical Collection of the Great Lakes (Bowling Green State University). 2003. Retrieved 2009-02-02. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The Story of the Lady Elgin". Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin. Retrieved 22 February 2009. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Charlebois, Dr. Peter(1978). Sternwheelers and Sidewheelers. Toronto: NC Press Limited, p. 10. ISBN 0-919600-72-7.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 "History of the Great Lakes". Publisher, Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co, 1899. Reproduced by Michigan Genealogy on the Web. Retrieved 22 February 2009. 
  5. "Lady Elgin". Alpena County Public Library. Retrieved 22 February 2009. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Nash, Jay Robert (1976). Darkest Hours. New York, NY: Nelson-Hall. ISBN 0882291408. 
  7. "Lady Elgin: Coroner's Inquest at Chicago" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved 22 February 2009. 
  12. "Lady Elgin Memorial Statue". Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. Retrieved 22 February 2009. 
  13. New York Times. September 25, 1860. 
  14. Baillod, Brendon. "The Wreck of the Steamer Lady Elgin". Retrieved 2009-02-02. 
  15. "National Register of Historic Places, Lake County, Illinois". National Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 22 February 2009. 

External links

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