Lost on the Lady Elgin
DESCRIPTION: "Up from the poor man's cottage, forth from the mansion's door ... Cometh a voice of mourning, a sad and solemn wail, Lost on the Lady Elgin... Numbered in that three hundred Who failed to reach the shore." The many mourners are briefly mentioned
AUTHOR: Henry Clay Work?
EARLIEST DATE: 1861 (copyright by H. M. Higgins)
KEYWORDS: ship wreck disaster death orphan family
1860 - The Lady Elgin, an excursion boat on Lake Michigan, collides with a steamer and sinks
FOUND IN: US(MW,SE,So)
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Randolph 692, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text, 1 tune)
Randolph/Cohen, pp. 453-455, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 692)
LPound-ABS, 60, pp. 134-135, "The Lady Elgin" (1 text)
BrownII 214, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text)
Dean, pp. 61-62, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text)
Peters, pp. 239-240, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text, 1 tune)
Stout 44, p. 62, "The Lady Elgin" (1 text plus a fragment)
Walton/Grimm/Murdock, pp. 199-202, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text, 1 tune, with no evidence that it was taken from tradition)
cf. Gardner/Chickering, p. 480, "Lady Elgin" (source notes only)
ADDITIONAL: Robert E. Gard and L. G. Sorden, _Wisconsin Lore: Antics and Anecdotes of Wisconsin People and Places_, Wisconsin House, 1962, p. 28, "Lady Elgin" (1 text, presumably from Wisconsin although no source is listed)
cf. "The Titanic (IV - 'Lost on the Great Titanic')" (tune)
NOTES: Cohen, Pound, and McNeil credit this to Henry Clay Work, though the disaster came before his songwriting career took off. Other sources do not seem aware of this attribution. I have not seen the sheet music. Walton/Grimm/Murdock reports that Work first published it in a newspaper. It is not in his the anthology of his songs published by his nephew and cited in this Index as WorkSongs.
Varhola, p. 58, describe the ship as follows: "[The] Lady Elgin [was] a double-decked wooden side-wheel steamer owned by Gordon S. Hubbard & Co. that had been built nine years earlier in Buffalo, New York.... One of the largest steamers on the Great Lakes, the luxurious Lady Elgin was an impressive 252 feet long, nearly 34 feet wide, and had a draft of just over 14 feet, and her 54-inch-cylinder, 11-foot-stroke steam engine powered a pair of 32-foot paddle wheels. Operated by a crew of forty-three, she was equipped to carry two hundred passengers in her cabins, another hundred on her decks, and up to eight hundred tons of freight in her holds."
Constructed in 1851 (Shelak, p. 86), Thompson, p. 146, says that she was originally built for Canada's Grand Trunk Railway, and intended to sail from Buffalo to Chicago (entirely under steam, if the drawing on p. 149 of Thompson is accurate; she carried no sail). Although designed for passengers, she also carried a lot of freight for the Grand Trunk (Bourrie,p. 92). In 1856, when the Grand Trunk between Toronto and Sarnia was completed, she shifted to a Chicago-to-Lake-Superior route. She was successful enough that she came to be called "The Queen of the Lakes." But Bourrie, pp. 92-93, also notes that she had an amazing series of groundings and other misadventures in this period, one of which nearly caused her to be written off. Shelak, p. 87, mentions a grounding and a fire, and says that she was considered a bad insurance risk as a result.
Apparently the passengers who booked the Lady Elgin were mostly Irish, from Wisconsin and Illinois. Their story was peculiar. Thompson, p. 147, explains that the governor of Wisconsin at the time was threatening to take the state out of the Union if the federal government didn't do something about slavery. One of the state's militia units was an Irish outfit commanded by Garrett Barry. Barry declared that he would stick with the Union no matter what Wisconsin did, and the Wisconin government ordered his unit demobilized (Bourrie, p. 94).
The unit wanted to stick together. So they chartered a trip from Milwaukee to Chicago on the Lady Elgin to raise money to purchase new weapons. The company and the paying passengers would go to Chicago on September 7, 1860, hold a parade, and come back.
The ship's captain was Jack Wilson, who was distinguished enough that he had been allowed to lead the first ship ever to travel the Soo Canal (between Lake Superior and the lower great lakes) in 1855 (Ratigan, p. 43). He apparently did not like the weather on the night of the return voyage (Thompson, p. 148). But he was finally convinced to put out from the shore.
Then, on the night of September 8, the storm struck,
It was a bad night for visibility. And the schooner Augusta, 129 feet long, carrying pine logs, had no running lights (Ritchie, p. 112; he calls the ship Augusta of Oswego. Shelak, p. 87, says that there is dispute about the running lights but notes that she was "carrying nearly full sail despite the weather." Apparently her cargo of logs was shifting and she was in danger of capsizing). Augusta's lookout allegedly saw the Lady Elgin twenty minutes before the collision, but she did not change course (Ratigan, pp. 44-45; Thompson, p. 148, explains this on the basis that the mate on watch could not tell the Lady Elgin's course and had been too busy taking in sail to worry about his own; Bourrie, p. 96, explains it as the result of an illegal maneuver which went wrong). The smaller ship's bow went right into the Lady Elgin's. side.
The high waves parted the two ships quickly (Thompson, p. 150), and although the Augusta remained seaworthy, she had sustained enough damage that her captain headed for port without making any attempt at rescuing the victims on the Lady Elgin. (He would later claim that he thought he had struck only a glancing blow; damage to his own ship was slight -- Thompson, p. 150. Shelak, p. 88. also reports a claim that the Lady Elgin refused assistance. This strikes me as most improbable -- not only was the damage immediately evident to the passengers, but the boats separated before there was time for the Captain to learn what had happened).
The Lady Elgin herself tried to head for shore, but she was nine miles off the coast, with one of her paddlwheels wrecked (Bourrie, p. 96), and it was soon clear that she would sink before she could reach the land, despite frantic attempts to lighten her, shift her cargo,and patch the hole (Bourrie,p. 98).
And, according to Thompson, p. 149, she had only four lifeboats -- and those lacked oars! (Thompson, p. 151. Shelak, p. 88, gives a slightly different story: The first boat to be lowered was supposed to inspect the damage, but the oars were forgotten and the boat torn away by the waves).
Captain Wilson managed to get most of the passengers onto improvised rafts, but in the storm, many of them broke up and most of those aboard, including Wilson, were lost (though Shelak, p. 90, says that he made it to shore, then went back into the water to try to rescue others and was lost; his body was finally found on the far side of Lake Michigan. Barry, the militia unit commander, was also killed (Bourrie, p. 106). To make matters worse, the shores of the Lake were very steep here, creating a strong undertow. Passengers would often find themselves very close to shore, only to be sucked back into the water (Bourrie, p. 100; Shelak, p. 89).
Reportedly the ship's upper works exploded as she went down -- probably due to compressed air rather than a boiler explosion. The boat sank within about twenty minutes of being hit.
There was one noteworthy deed of heroism: A university student named Edward Spencer swam out more than a dozen times to save fifteen or more passengers -- about a sixth of the total (Ratigan, pp. 47-48; Bourrie, p. 101, says that the deed crippled him for life). Others on the shore, however, robbed the dead bodies (Thompson, p. 153)
No knows how exactly how many were aboard, or how high the casualties were. According to Hudson/Nicholls, p. 85, the collision killed 287 of 385 passengers on the Lady Elgin. Ratigan says that 297 were killed. As of the time he wrote, it was the second-highest loss of life from a great lakes disaster. Thompson, p. 153, notes that estimates of the number of survivors range from 98 to 155, and the casualties from 279 to 350. Shelak, p. 89, says there were some 400 passengers on board and cites the 297 figure for casualties. Ritchie, p. 112, says 287 were lost and fewer than 100 survived. Varhola, p. 59, has the highest number of all, claiming that between 600 and 700 people were on board. He says that 160 survived, and 200 bodies washed ashore. Bourrie, p. 100, gives similar numbers.
The Augusta became so infamous that she had to be renamed Colonel Cook and transferred from service on the lakes to work on the Atlantic (Ratigan, pp. 48-49; Shelak, p. 90). Her captain was placed on trial, but it was found that he had conformed to the very weak regulations of the time (Ritchie, p. 112).
According to Walton/Grimm/Murdock, many of the Augusta's former crew, including the captain, were lost four years later when the the ship they were then sailing, the Mojave, sank without a trace in good weather.
The one good thing to come out of the disaster was that an inquiry was held (Thompson, pp. 153-154), which assigned portions of the blame to both ships (e.g. the Lady Elgin had no watertight compartments, and did not yield to the smaller ship, while the mate of the Augusta was too slow to inform his captain of the other ship's presence), but the primary blame was with the existing navigation laws. The Lady Elgin disaster was largely responsible for the 1864 passage of America's first navigation law (Thompson, pp. 154-155)
Shelak, p. 92, notes that portions of the wreck were found in 1989, and became the subject of protracted litigation. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.0
- Bourrie: Mark Bourrie, Many a Midnight Ship: True Stories of Great Lakes Shipwrecks, University of Michigan Press, 2005, pp. 91-106. This inclines excessively toward the dramatic and undocumented
- Hudson/Nicholls: Kenneth Hudson & Ann Nicholls, Tragedy on the High Seas: A History of ShipwrecksA & W Publishers, 1979
- Ratigan: William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals, revised edition, Eerdmans, 1977, pp. 43-49
- Ritchie: David Ritchie, Shipwrecks: An Encyclopedia of the World's Worst Disasters at Sea, 1996 [I use the 1999 Checkmark paperback edition], p. 112.
- Shelak: Benjamin J. Shelak, Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan, Trails Books, 2003, pp. 86-92
- Thompson: Mark L. Thompson, Graveyards of the Lakes, Wayne State University Press, 2000, pp. 146-155; Clearly is the most detailed and best footnoted of the sources for this article.
- Varhola: Michael J. Varhola, Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures: Great Lakes, Globe Pequot Press, 2007 [listed as copyright 2008, but I bought my copy in November 2007], pp. 57-62. Short and undocumented.
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