Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2010
September 8, 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the Lady Elgin. The worst tragedy ever seen on the Great Lakes, this event looms large in Winnetka and Lake Michigan history.
Just before midnight on September 7, 1860, a palatial sidewheel steamboat named the Lady Elgin left Chicago bound for Milwaukee. The almost 400 passengers on the steamer were returning from a long day’s outing.
The Lady Elgin sighted the Augusta, a schooner filled with lumber, around 2:30 a.m. Visibility was poor; storm clouds raged and the waves were intense. The Augusta’s load of lumber shifted and the two boats collided. Within minutes the atmosphere on the Lady Elgin went from merriment to pandemonium. The Augusta, sustaining minimum damage, kept sailing to Chicago. With a large hole in its side, the Lady Elgin sank within a half hour. People were only able to get in three of the lifeboats. The large upper hurricane deck fell straight into the water and served as a raft for some forty people.
Although the ship crashed two to three miles off the shore of Highland Park, the waves were so strong that survivors, bodies and debris were swept down to the northern shore of Winnetka. At that time, the lakeshore in this area consisted of a narrow strip of beach rising up to clay cliffs almost 50 feet high. The storm had churned up an angry line of breakers. Around 6:30 a.m. the first of the three lifeboats made it to shore in the vicinity of the Jared Gage house, which still stands at 1175 Whitebridge Hill Road.
Immediately a call for assistance went out from the Gage house, and Winnetka residents rode horses down to Northwestern University and the Garrett Biblical Institute to find young men to help pull out survivors. The Winnetka telegraph office spread the news to regional newspapers. The newly completed Chicago and Milwaukee train line brought people to Winnetka to help as word of the accident spread.
In 1946 Dwight Clark captured the scene: “Crowds on the bluffs and beaches soon began to notice pieces of wreckage wash up near the site of the present Winnetka water tower…By ten o’clock, the scene from the bluffs was a panorama of what remained of the brave souls that were stout enough to endure the fury of the night. And now, in plain view of the watchers, came the last portion of the hurricane deck raft, with Captain Wilson and eight of his dwindled flock whom the storm had thus far spared…Now before the eyes of everyone, this storm-battered remnant was finally dashed to pieces on an offshore sandbar and all on board were lost.”
The storm left a tremendous undertow, creating the tragic situation that Clark describes: the exhausted victims had drifted close enough to the Winnetka shore to see it and be seen but were unable to cross the breakers, and died in full view of the people on shore. Men were lowered from the bluff with rope tied around their waists in attempts to pull people in to safety; one Evanston seminary student, Edward Spencer, is credited with saving 17 lives. Another man, Joseph Conrad, was said to have pulled 28 to safety; other unknown rescuers pulled in survivors up and down the Winnetka and North Shore coastline.
The Gage house, the Artemas Carter house at 515 Sheridan Road, and other Winnetka residences served as temporary hospitals; the newly-built Winnetka train depot served as a morgue. Winnetka residents brought food and clothing for the survivors. It is estimated that 302 people lost their lives that day; the 1860 census shows only 130 residents in the town of Winnetka.
The tragedy captured the nation’s attention, but was quickly overshadowed by the 1860 elections and the Civil War. Interest was revived again when an 1861 song, “Lost on the Lady Elgin” by Henry C. Work, experienced great popularity. Debris from the Lady Elgin served as a playground for generations of Winnetka children; the photo of the children in the boater hats is from 1890.
Source: Clark, Dwight. “The Wreck of the Lady Elgin” in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, p. 410-411, December 1946.