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The Lady Elgin 155 Years Later: Recalling One Of Lake Michigan’s Worst Maritime Disasters

Vintage Wisconsin: Tragedy On Lake, Wreck Of The Lady Elgin

Wisconsin Historical Images

One hundred fifty-five years ago this week, the steamer ship Lady Elgin, depicted in the sketch above, sank on Lake Michigan after a collision with a schooner. It was one the lake’s most tragic maritime disasters.

The Irish Union Guard of Milwaukee’s Third Ward, a predominately Irish neighborhood, had chartered the ship on Sept. 7, 1860. At the time, tensions over slavery were growing. Many Wisconsinites opposed slavery, including Wisconsin Gov. Alexander Randall, who threatened to secede unless the federal government outlawed slavery. Militia companies were asked to take sides in the event of secession, and the Irish Union Guard chose the federal government over the state.

In response, state officials disarmed the Irish Union Guard and revoked the commission of their commander. The unit refused to disband, however, and instead chartered the Lady Elgin for a trip to Chicago to raise money and to attend a Democratic rally featuring a speech by presidential candidate Stephen Douglas.

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They made it to Chicago and were jubilantly headed back to Milwaukee, along with some other passengers who had been stranded by fog, when disaster struck. In stormy weather, an unlit lumber schooner rammed the Lady Elgin in the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 1860.

The terrible blow sent the passengers into a panic. Mattresses and other goods were thrown into the hole to staunch the flood of water but it did no good. Lifeboats along with deck chairs and cabin doors were thrown into the water as rafts. Passengers leapt into the stormy waves. Most drowned.

The Lady Elgin had no passenger manifest, but contemporary estimates place the number of passengers at 400 to 600. At least 300 people lost their lives that day, many from the Third Ward, including the chief of the fire department, the county treasurer, the harbormaster, a school commissioner, and a U.S. marshal.

The Lady Elgin still lies at the bottom of Lake Michigan, a few miles off shore in 50 feet of water.

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