“Staunch was the noble steamer, precious the freight she bore,
Gaily they loosed their cables a few short hours before,
Proudly she swept our harbor, joyfully rang the bell,
Little they thought ere morning it would peal so sad a knell.”
This song, composed by Henry C. Work, describes the aftermath of the tragic Lady Elgin sinking after colliding with the lumber schooner Augusta in Lake Michigan in 1860. The shipwreck was the most deadly in all of Great Lakes history. Though the exact number of victims is unknown, it is estimated there were around 400 people on board and only about 98 survivors.
The Titanic Of The Great Lakes
This significant loss of life has linked the Lady Elgin to the more famous Titanic sinking.
“They don’t find the wrecked ship until 1989,” says Paul Timm, history teacher and author. “Harry Zych found it 130 years later. It really was like trying to find the Titanic.”
Timm had relatives aboard the Lady Elgin and has spent the last two years researching the tragedy. He just recently wrote a historical fiction novel titled Lost Lady: The Lady Elgin Tragedy with the main character being a little girl, a fictionalized version of one of his relatives.
The Civil War
Aside from the high number of deaths, the history of the shipwreck is significant because of its connection to Civil War politics.
“The most significant thing I think that most people don’t even know is the governor of Wisconsin at that time was an abolitionist, and he was furious at the federal government that they had not already outlawed slavery. So he was considering having the state of Wisconsin secede from the Union,” explains Timm.
After the head of the Irish Union Guard, Garrett Barry, refused to support seceding, saying it would be unconstitutional, Governor Randall stripped Barry of his commission and took away their guns, disbanding the militia. Then, Barry decided to start his own independent guard and have a fundraiser in Chicago, Ill., to pay for guns and also to see Stephen A. Douglas’s democratic speech in his campaign against Lincoln in September of 1860.
The Tragic Collision
The Irish Union Guard left on the night of the sixth, got to Chicago on the morning of the seventh and spent the day at political rallies and got back on the Lady Elgin at 11:30 at night.
“The captain didn’t want to go because he knew a storm was coming, but people were insisting that they return, and so they get out onto the lake about two hours later,” says Timm. “The Augusta is a schooner. It’s coming south, and of course the Lady Elgin is heading north to Milwaukee, and they collide in a storm. It’s a gale force storm, like 12- to 20-foot waves they said, and it t-bones the Lady Elgin right in front of the paddlewheel. The ship goes down in 20 minutes.”
Many survivors of the crash ended up in Winnetka, Ill., and many victims were buried there as well. Ted Smith is a historian working on a project called, “A Grave History” in which he does cemetery photography and writes up histories on people, families and the cemeteries themselves. Smith studies the connection between Winnetka, his hometown, and the Lady Elgin sinking.
“As the storm and the current came, it washed everyone as well as the pieces of the wreck further south, which is how most of the people wound up coming to shore in Winnetka,” says Smith. “And there were a couple of prominent Winnetka families whose houses were on the shore who turned their houses into makeshift triages for anyone and everyone who was pulled out of the water.”
In his research, Smith has read firsthand accounts of a steward on the Lady Elgin who was near the captain during the wreck and recalled the captain instructing crew members to put together a raft made of doors. Eventually as they got close to the shore, the captain was swept off and never seen again. There are also accounts given by a man who was working in the Port Clinton lighthouse at the time and had been assigned to turn the lighthouse off even though there was insistence to keep it lit. Had the lights been left on, Smith believes this whole scenario might have actually been changed.
The Cursed Ship & Captain
Both before and after the crash, the history of the Lady Elgin and Augusta is riddled with misfortune and superstition.
“Some people say the Lady Elgin was somewhat cursed because it had a number of accidents between 1851 and 1860, including one where it was sinking actually, and it makes it to the dock, and the ship sinks right at the dock,” says Timm. “Another time, there was a circus brought onto the boat, and the elephant got a hold of the rutter chain and wouldn’t let go of it, almost sending the ship right toward disaster.”
The 26-year-old captain, Darius Malott, of the Augusta may also have been cursed as well. According to Timm, before the Lady Elgin tragedy, Malott was once on a stranded ship after the main sail snapped, and the crew ran out of food and decided to resort to cannibalism. Just as they were about to kill Malott, they were rescued. And, of course, Malott’s luck only worsened aboard the Augusta.
“It was his first time on the Augusta captaining it,” says Timm. “The Augusta is fine after the shipwreck; it makes it back to Chicago, and so everyone wants to blame Malott and the crew for leaving the people from the Lady Elgin to die, but since the Augusta was only half the size of the Lady Elgin, they thought they’d had the most damage.”
Four years later in an ironic twist, Malott captained another ship called the Mojave that went down, drowning him and his whole crew in Lake Michigan, not too far from where the Lady Elgin sank.
Despite the supposed bad luck and the tragedy of the Lady Elgin, the shipwreck is a significant part of history that lives on and deserves greater recognition.
“What is really kind of striking is how brave a lot of the passengers and especially the captain were at the moment,” says Smith. “And just thinking about what the scene that night in Winnetka would have looked like with people washing ashore and people from Winnetka waking up and leaving their beds to run to the shore to pull the people in is just moving, really.”