When folks think of ship wrecks and maritime disasters, their thoughts turn to the Titanic and other famous sinkings on the briny deep.
But in fact the disasters with the most loss of life have occurred on our inland water ways. By far the heaviest loss of life was on the riverboat Sultana overloaded with former Yankee prisoners recently liberated from Rebel prisons. The ship’s boilers exploded in April 1865 near Helena, Arkansas killing over 1,800.
Even ships at dock have not been safe. In 1915 the Eastland, a passenger steamer out of Chicago rolled over at her moorage when passengers, mostly Western Electric employees on a day excursion, rushed to the dock side to wave goodbye to family and friends. 844 were killed, the largest loss of life in any single Great Lakes shipwreck.
The Eastland’s record does not stand for any want of competition. In fact the Great Lakes, particularly the biggest ones—Superior, Michigan, and Huron—are among the most treacherous waters in the world. According to David Swayze, the acknowledged expert in the field, there have been 4,900 documented ship wrecks on the Lakes in about nearly 500 years of non-native navigation. Extreme weather conditions and very choppy water caused by the “shallow bowl” effect on the lake continue to make sailing on them hazardous for even the largest and most modern vessels—witness the famed wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald.
Few Lake Michigan disasters are more storied than the sinking of the Lady Elgin, which went down off the Illinois North Shore near Highland on September 8, 1860. The wooden hulled side-wheel steamer was the pride of the lakes, one of the largest and most elegant passenger packets to ply its waters.
Built in Buffalo, New York shipyard in 1851, she was named for the wife of the Governor General of Canada, James Bruce, Earl of Elgin.
Despite her swanky appointments and favor with well-healed passengers the Lady Elgin in retrospect seems a jinxed ship. In her 19 years of service she was involved in numerous accidents and mishaps. In 1854 she sank after striking a rock near Manitowoc, Wisconsin. After being refloated and repaired an accident with her machinery left her dead in the water the next year and she had to be towed to port in Chicago. She was damaged in an 1857 fire, struck a reef at Cooper Harbor, Michigan in 1858 and later that same year ran aground on another reef on Lake Superior. In 1859 she had to be towed to ports in Michigan twice.
But none of these mishaps had caused the loss of life and she was still regarded as a seaworthy, first class ship.
On September 6, 1860 the Lady Elgin was engaged to make a round trip, two day excursion run from Milwaukee to Chicago. On board were members of the city’s Union Guard militia unit and their families bound for a day of politics including a scheduled speech by Democratic Presidential candidate Stephen Douglas. After a pleasant day of oration and picnicking the passenger re-embarked as storm clouds gathered looking forward to an evening of gay dancing to the music of a German band on board.
The ship made its way north in heavy rain and against a strong head wind. Despite this, her powerful engines were making decent time. About 2 A.M. the sailing schooner Augusta of Oswego spotted the Lady Elgin by her bright running lights and the lights from the forward cabin where diehards were still dancing. The captain of the Augusa lost sight of the other ship in the storm and misgauged the distance between them. At 2:20 the Augusta rammed her amid ship. Unlike the steamship, the schooner was not required to have running lights and was invisible to the crew of the Lady Elgin who could take no evasive action.
The ship initially stayed afloat but was taking water. The Captain of the Augusta assumed the other vessel was alright. Concerned with damage to his bow, so he headed to port in Chicago without standing by to render assistance.
Captain Wilson of the Lady Elgin ordered that cattle, cargo, and baggage be jettisoned in an attempt to get the hole in her side above water level. The chief steward and other crew tried unsuccessfully to plug the breach with mattresses. A large life boat was lowered on the starboard side to assess the damage. It never regained the ship, which broke in half after about half an hour, the aft portion sinking. Life preservers, actually just large planks for survivors to cling to were never issued. Only two small boats and one large raft got away from the ship. Many clung to pieces of wreckage.
Prevailing winds drove the survivors, including Captain Wilson on the crowded raft jammed with as many as 300 people, toward the shore. Two boats with 18 people in them, a smaller raft with 14, and individuals on wreckage did reach shore. But at day break between 300 and 400, including Wilson and the large raft, were floundering just off shore.
Students from nearby Northwestern University and the Garrett Biblical Institute worked frantically to pull survivors ashore. Captain Wilson died heroically trying to save two women as storm lashed winds beat against the rocks.
Although the exact number will never be known because the ship manifest was lost, at least 300 people died in the tragedy. It was the greatest loss of life ever in an open-water wreck on the Great Lakes.
Four years later rules were adopted that required running lights on sail, as well as steam powered ships.
In 1989 the wreckage of the Lady Elgin was found off of Highwood by Harry Zych, who after an extended court fight was granted ownership by right of salvage. Divers, who must get Zych’s permission, have retrieved many artifacts from the wreck which lies in four debris field in about 60 feet of water.
The wreckage was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.