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The History of Manitowoc County
by Louis Falge
pg 138
One of the most noted disasters which has occurred on Lake Michigan, was that of the destruction of the Lady Elgin, a passenger steamer, which was sunk by a schooner colliding with it on September 8, 1860. The following account of the terrible disaster is taken from the issue of the [Manitowoc] Pilot of September 14th of that year; as follows:

We devote a large portion of today's Pilot to the distressing particulars of the sinking of the steamer Lady Elgin, and the consequent loss of valuable lives, near Chicago, on Saturday morning last. The fatal news arrived here on Sunday evening, throwing a dark gloom over our village, and creating deep emotions of sympathy and grief. Our heart is too full to give utterance to our feelings on this dreadful occurrence. Sudden indeed was the fall of the fatal blow which struck so many down. O, fatal shaft! How withering the pangs thou hast borne to the bleeding bosoms of anxious mothers, kind fathers, and loving kindred. Melancholy and sad must be the retrospect. The dearest and fondest of the family circles have been swept away--have disappeared in the meridian and youth of their years--in the prime of man and womanhood--in the infancy of beauty and loveliness--in the very dawn of usefulness. The dark storm cloud, with the arms of death in its embrace, suddenly burst upon them, and they sank beneath the deep waves. The blue waters of Lake Michigan covers them, and it only remains for sympathizing friends, who knew them best, to appreciate the virtues of them all, and pay the last sad offices of grief to their memory.

Through the kindness of Mr. George Humphrey, we are indebted for a copy of the Milwaukee News of Sunday morning, which brings us later and more accurate particulars of the loss of the steamer Lady Elgin. We quote from it as follows:

"The steamer Lady Elgin left this port on Thursday evening last, for Chicago, having on board an excursion party from this city, consisting of the Union Guards, Captain Barry, the Light Guard Drum Corps, delegations from several of our fire companies, the city band, members of the council and police and a large number of private citizens, numbering in all over four hundred persons!! She arrived safely at Chicago and left that city on her return trip about eleven o'clock Friday evening. At two o'clock in the morning when off from Winnetka, some nine miles from shore, she was run into by the schooner Augusta, loaded with lumber, bound for Chicago, and sunk in about thirty minutes."

"As the telegraph brought the distressing news to this city, the heart of every citizen throbbed with anxiety, for almost every person on board the ill-fated steamer was a citizen of Milwaukee. As they received detail after detail, the news which came flashing over the wires, was truly heart rending and terrible to witness. Would that we could be spared the pain of a recital of such scenes as have come to our knowledge of this calamity, the magnitude of which we trust in the providence of God, we may never have occasion again to chronicle."

"We give below all the particulars we have been able to collect previous to a late hour Sunday morning. Among so many conflicting rumors and reports, of course, it is impossible to give particulars which may be relied on, and some days must elapse before a full report of lost and saved can be obtained."

The News then gives the names of three or four hundred persons who were known to be on board, and from whom nothing has been heard. Captain Barry, commander of the Union Guards, Councillor(sic) Frank McCormick and two sisters, and hundreds of the prominent Irish and German citizens of Milwaukee, with their families, are known to be lost. About seventy persons were saved, having been taken to boats. A raft was constructed of the hurricane deck an was managed by Captain Wilson. Forty persons were on this raft when it started from the wreck, but when it reached the surf they were all lost but seven or eight. The News then gives the following account of the scene near the place of disaster:


"Large numbers left Milwaukee on the 3 P.M. train for Winnetka, the scene of the disaster. The train was loaded with relatives and friends of those on board the ill-fated boat, together with reporters of the city press. At Winnetka the scene was impressive and one long to be remembered. Ere we arrived on the spot, the dead bodies of but four have been recovered and taken to Chicago. Once was identified as that of Stephen Murphy. The others were not recognized. At the shore of the lake the wind blew furiously, and the waves dashed against the high bluffs with tremendous force. We do not see how it was possible that those who were fortunate enough to reach the shore alive, could be got up the steep declivity, and out of harm's way. All along the beach pieces of wreck could be seen floating, tossed about by the angry waves, but not a human body was in sight. All!All! save the few who had already gained the shore, had sunk from sight. From the citizens of Winnetka we gained a few incidents and particulars connected with the disaster. About six o'clock yesterday morning the boat containing the survivors who first reach the shore arrived at the house of Mr. Gage and aroused the inmates, and related the story of the disaster. The neighbors were immediately collected together, and preparations were made with rope and ladders to save all that could reach the shore alive. Upon arriving at the beach numerous pieces of wreck were seen floating about in every direction, with drowning poor wretches clinging to them, and many were so near the shore when they loosed their hold, from exhaustion, that they were plainly seen to go down, and those on the beach were powerless to rescue them."

"The captain of the Lady Elgin had nearly reached the shore when he sank. Mrs. Rivers, who was near him at the time, thinks he must have been struck by the raft, as it was whirled about by the waves so violently that he sank immediately; he wasn't not seen afterwards. All those rescued speak in the highest terms of his conduct and efforts to encourage the passengers in their endeavors to reach land. He constantly bade them be of good cheer, and instructed them how to secure themselves to the raft, and preserved throughout the whole a presence of mind and self possession truly remarkable."

"J.C. Herbert of this city, who was also saved, informs us that he heard the crash when the vessels collided, and ran upon the deck where he stood for some time examining the extent of the damage done; that he had an opportunity to jump on board the schooner, but hearing that there was not much damage done, thought his safest place was to remain where he was. He saw no light on board the schooner, and thinks there were none out at the time of the accident; he first procured a plank and afterwards lashed himself by his suspenders to a ladder, when he saw a boat about pushing off, which he succeeded in getting into. This was the first boat which arrived, and exhausted as Mr. Herbert then was, he gallantly commenced efforts for the rescue of those who floated toward the shore. He was without coat, hat, boots or vest, and after reaching the shore periled his life again frequently in his endeavors to assist those struggling with the waves. All the while he was looking earnestly for his brother who had not yet reached shore, and he scanned steadily the faces of each one he rescued in search for the missing one. His efforts were at last crowned with success, and his brother was found, though nearly exhausted, and with the right hand badly cut and his body badly bruised. Persons continued to float into shore from eleven o'clock until nearly four in the afternoon."

"The steam tug McQueen, from Chicago, arrived at the scene of the disaster but did not venture within three miles of the vicinity to which passengers drifted, and only picked up the dead body of one infant."

"Amid those prominent in the force of rescuer was Edward Spencer, who frequently plunged into the surf with a rope tied around his body and rescued many from a watery grave. A man named William Toner, who is a member of one of the Chicago fire companies, had a brother and sister-in-law aboard the boat. He was perfectly frantic and ran up and down the beach searching among the pieces of wreck for the last ones and anxiously inquiring of the survivors regarding them. He suddenly started from the crowd, stating that he should traverse the beach, and when our reporter left at ten o'clock last night, had not been heard from or seen since morning."

"The life boat in which were the two mates came in below Winnetka. One of the boats from the hurricane deck started with twelve passengers, eight of whom were saved. The boat upset twice. A lady and child were washed away once and picked up. They were washed away a second time, and drowned. Our informant stated that she never spoke after leaving the steamer. Of the eight saved on this boat, seven belonged to Milwaukee."

"George Norton, of Cleveland, was bound to Superior City, and had with him a large amount of gold, a good portion of which was in his pocket. As he leaned over the edge of the raft it hurt him, and fearing that its weight might assist in dragging him down, he thrust his hands into his pocket and threw it all into the lake."

"The citizens of Winnetka did everything in their power to render comfortable those who were saved, many of whom were almost destitute of clothing. Mr. and Mrs. C.E. Peck were very assiduous, the lady giving everything she had in the house in the way of clothing and sending victuals to the rescued. Artemus Carter, to whose house was carried Miss Rivers and Mr. Eviston and wife, were also unremitting in their endeavors to make comfortable the unfortunates."

"Mr. Carter saved several at the imminent risk of his own life. The rescued speak in high terms also of the following persons: J. Gage, A.T. Spencer, D.M.P. Davis, Judge Wilson and wife, Mr. Millard, Mr. Kinnes, Mr. Garlance, Mr. Charles Davis, Mr. McLean, Mrs. Sloat and Mrs. Bissell. The ladies carefully nursed the sufferers, and bestowed upon them the most unremitting attention."

"The survivors report the lake as very calm when the boat left Chicago. She went out of the harbor in fine style, but by the time of the accident, a heavy see was running.


At the moment of the collision, there was music and dancing in the forward cabin. In an instant after the crash all was still, and in a half hour the steamer sunk. I passed through the cabins; the ladies were pale but silent, there was not a cry nor a shriek; no sound but the rush of steam and the surge of heavy seas. Whether they were not fully aware of the danger, or whether their appalling situation make them speechless I cannot tell.

A boat was lowered at once, with the design of going round upon the larboard (sic) to examine the leak. There were two oardoars just at the moment, some person possessed himself of one of them, and we were left powerless to manage the boat. We succeeded once in reaching the wheel, but were drifted away and were thrown upon the beach at Winnetka. Only two boats left the steamer; one of them contained thirteen persons, all of whom were saved, the other bore eight, but for reached the shore alive, the others being drowned at the beach.

Before I left the steamer, the engine had ceased to work, the first having been extinguished, and within thirty minutes the Lady Elgin had disappeared. The force and direction of the wind were such that the boats and fragments of wreck were driving up the lake and would reach the shore in the vicinity of Winnetka. As I stood upon the beach helplessly looking back along the route we had drifted, I could see in the gray of the morning, objects floating upon the water, and sometimes I thought human beings struggling with the waves.


The Augusta took on a cargo of lumber about three miles below Port Huron in St. Clair river, and sailed thence about four o'clock P.M. of the 1st of September. That nothing material occurred during the voyage until the 7th of September, the vessel then being off Milwaukee, about 7:30 o'clock, the wind about northeast. A strong breeze, vessel heading south by east with all sail set.

At two o'clock A.M. of the 8th was off Waukegan, wind in same direction and fresh, about four or five miles off shore, weather cloudy, moon up, not very dark, our lights all right and in order, vessel on same course. At about three o'clock took a heavy squall from the north, and vessel broached to--lowered away fore and main sail about half way, took in jibs and were running under these sails when we discovered a steamer's lights, both red and bright, supposed to be from a quarter to a half mile distant and steering between north and northeast. Raining very hard.

We kept our vessel on her course east by south until we saw a collision was probable, when we put helm hard up. Struck the steamer in about two or three minutes, first abaft the paddle box on her port side. The steamer kept on her course, engine in full motion, heading the Augusta around north alongside of the steamer. Got separated from steamer in about a minute, when the Augusta fell into the trough of the sea. Al our head gear, jib boom, staunches, etc., were carried away. Took in all sail and cleared away an anchor, supposing the vessel would fill. Lost sight of the steamer in five minutes after collision. After clearing up the wreck, got up forestaysail (finding the vessel was not leaking), and made efforts to get the vessel before the wind and save the masts as all the head stays were gone, except one forestay, but was obliged to hoist a part of the foresail, when we succeeded in getting before the wind and stood in for the land. When within three miles, stood down along the shore and arrived off Chicago harbor about half past ten o'clock A.M.,September 8th.