History of the Great Lakes - Wreck of the Lady Elgin
This page donated for use by GLS-Downward Bound MIGenWeb site.
Copyright © Transcribed by Jean Loehde February 1998
Copying of the files within by non-commercial individuals and libraries
is encouraged. This message must appear on all copied files. Commercial
copying and use on any other website or published media must have permission.
History of the Great Lakes, Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co 1899, Page 683-684
"Wreck of the Lady Elgin.- One of the greatest marine horrors on record was
the loss of the steamboat Lady Elgin, on Lake Michigan, September 8, 1860.
She was struck by the schooner Augusta, and sank in twenty minutes, in 300
feet of water. She had on board 300 excursionists, 50 ordinary passengers,
and a crew of 35 officers and men, a total of 385. Of these only 98 were
saved. Among the lost was Herbert Ingram, of the "Illustrated London News".
The schooner Augusta, Capt. D. M. Mallot, reached Chicago early Saturday
morning, Sept. 8, and reported that on the night previous, about midnight,
she had collided with a large steamer. The Augusta had a full cargo of
lumber, which had shifted in the collision. She had struck head on, suffered
the loss of her headgear, and was leaking badly. The captain knew nothing of
the extent of disaster to the other vessel.
The steamer Lady Elgin had left Milwaukee early Friday morning September 7,
for Chicago with 300 excursionists, largely members of the Independent Union
Guards, and their friends. She left Chicago in the evening between 10 and 11
o'clock on her regular trip to Lake Superior, taking about 50 passengers to
Mackinaw and other northern points in addition to the 300 excursionists.
The evening set in with a wind moderately high. A heavy thunder storm came
up about midnight, and the wind grew to a perfect gale. The sea ran high
and so continued throughout the night and Saturday.
At the time of the collision the Lady Elgin was steaming against the wind.
The Augusta was sailing south by east under all sail except the gaff topsail.
The steamer had all her lights set, the schooner had none. A half hour
before the collision the second mate of the Augusta, on watch, saw the
steamers lights, and for twenty minutes no orders were given. Evidence taken
before the coroner's inquest showed that the captain of the Augusta, who had
come forward, seemed bent on passing to the starboard of the Lady Elgin
instead of the Larboard side, according to the rule. Shortly before the
collision he ordered his helm head up, but she came straight on the steamer's
larboard side, knocking a hole in her side.
It was about 2:30 o'clock on Saturday morning when the collision occurred.
The Lady Elgin was about 10 miles from shore, off Winetka, 16 miles north of
The schooner struck the steamer at midships gangway on the larboard side,
tearing off the wheel, cutting through the guards and tearing into the cabin
and hull. The two separated instantly, and the Augusta drifted by in the
darkness. At the moment of the collision there was dancing in the forward
cabin, but most of the passengers had retired for the night. In an instant
all was still. Captain Wilson ordered a lifeboat to be lowered on the
starboard side, to be rowed around and discover the extent of the injury.
It dropped astern and did not regain the steamer. The latter was headed
west to reach the shore if possible. But the vessel began to fill rapidly
and to list. Freight was rolled to starboard and passengers were provided
with life preservers. The Elgin began to settle and reel, and many
passengers threw themselves overboard. Just when the vessel took the final
plunge, a sea struck her upper works and they parted from the hull and
floated off in several pieces. The night was intensely dark, lighted at
intervals by flashes of vivid lightening, and the wreckage was scattered
Two boats had been lowered, and in these 18 persons reached the shore.
Fourteen were saved on a large raft, and many others on parts of the wreckage.
It was established that 393 (another statement says 385) souls were aboard
the vessel, and of these 98 were saved."
A survivor named Bellman, after describing how he and others with the captain
got upon a raft, says: "On this extempore raft not less than 300 persons
were collected, the majority of whom clung to their places until nearly
daylight. The raft was mostly under water from the weight of the living
burden, and very few who clung to it were above the waist in the turbulent
sea. The Captain was constantly on his feet encouraging the crowd, and
seems to have been the only man who stirred from his recumbent position,
which was necessary to keep a secure hold on the precarious raft. He carried
a child which he found in the arms of an exhausted and submerged woman, to an
elevated portion of the raft, and left it in charge of a woman, when it was
soon lost. He constantly exhorted the crowd to keep silent, and not only to
make no noise, but to refrain from moving in order that the frail framework
might last a little longer." Bellman further states that during the time
which elapsed while the raft kept together there was scarcely a sound from
man, woman or child. They clung to their places in silent terror, and
neither groans nor prayers were audible; no voice save that of the captain
raised aloud in encouragement and good cheer, being heard amidst the roar of
the wind and the ceaseless splash of the combing waves. Finally the constant
action of the water broke up the raft, and large parties floated off on
detached pieces, and gradually the multitude melted away by couples and
solitary individuals until but a tithe of the whole number remained. The
swell tumbled the light raft about like feather-weights, and a weary struggle
the hopeless survivors had during the long drift of ten miles intervening to
the shore. Bellman was 10 hours on his raft, and said he was capsized and
thrown into the sea, with his two companions, every third minute. When they
reached the shore they were dashed about hopelessly in the surf, and, more
fortunate than their companions, were lifted upon the beach by the breakers
and rescued. The heroic captain was among the lost.
The Lady Elgin was rated a first class steamer, and had been a favorite with
the traveling public. She was built at Buffalo in 1851 by Bidwell and Banta
at a cost of $96,000. For several years she ran between Buffalo and Chicago,
then between Chicago and Collingwood, but for many seasons had constituted
the line between Chicago and other Lake Michigan ports and Lake Superior.
The Augusta was owned by Capt. G. W. Bissell, of Detroit, who not long after
had her name changed to Col. Cook. She was the second vessel of that name,
the first Col. Cook having been wrecked in the St. Lawrence.