Gazette Article by: Laurie Starrett
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1997
On a stormy September night 137 years ago, the sidewheel steamer Lady Elgin met her doom off the north shore of Chicago. She sank after being rammed by the schooner Augusta. Passengers and pieces of the ship were carried by wind and waves to beaches along the Winnetka shoreline. Only one hundred of the four hundred aboard survived, though an heroic rescue effort was mounted by Winnetkans and others alerted to the emergency.
Over a century later, in 1989, salvor Harry Zych discovered part of the sidewheeler after a 20-year search. Ownership of the wreckage of the Lady Elgin has been in litigation ever since, with both Zych and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency laying claim. However, title to the steamer is not the only dispute that surrounds the wreck.
In 1993 Winnetka resident Dan Buck found part of a sunken ship in waters off his family’s property on Sheridan Road between Pine and Spruce Streets. He thought, “It’s got to be the Lady Elgin.” Harry Zych dove with Buck for an inspection. Before the dive Zych stated, “If the piece measures 120 feet long by 31 feet wide, it matches the dimensions of the missing stern section of the steamer.” The measurements matched. Zych also described other characteristics of the find, such as a flat-bottomed hull, saw marks, a nearby rudder, and hardware consistent with that of the sidewheeler. Said Zych in a recent interview, “I believe it’s the Lady Elgin.”
Mark Braun, author of a book on Great Lakes’ shipwrecks, disagrees. Braun, who has not seen the wreckage, believes it is the entire keel of the schooner Velispede, which sank in 1866 off Kenosha, Wisconsin. Braun says newspaper and marine reports at the time described wreckage of the Velispede that washed ashore around Spruce Street in Winnetka a few days after it sank. He stated, “I do not believe it is the Lady Elgin.”
Harry Zych responded to that view by pointing out that a schooner has a V-shaped hull and a centerboard box; a steamer is flat bottomed. Zych also said that this wreckage has the framework for a pilothouse—consistent with the configuration of a steamer.
At the time of the discovery in 1993, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency said it would send an underwater archeologist to examine the find. When contacted recently, the associate director of the agency, Bill Wheeler, said he did not know if the underwater archeologist, who worked for the agency for one summer, made the dive. He also said there was probably no record of it.
No further efforts have been made to officially identify the wreckage. Because there are no artifacts at the site—only wooden ribs remain—the find is without ma-terial value. However, it has historical value, especially to Winnetka. The true identity of the hull, which appears and disappears from view beneath the shifting sands, remains controversial and elusive.