Lady Elgin Stern in Winnetka Unlikely

Gazette Article by: Thomas S. Hermes
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1998

Another clue to the mystery of the sunken ship lying off Winnetka’s lakeshore has been uncovered. The Winnetka Historical Society recently has discovered the results of a report from the Underwater Archeological Society of Chicago (UASC). These contradict earlier opinions that the wreckage is a section of the Lady Elgin. As reported in the Fall 1997 Gazette, Winnetkan Dan Buck was riding his jet ski in August 1993 about 400 feet offshore from his family’s lakefront home on Sheridan Road. The water was very clear that day, and he noticed a large structure on the bottom of the lake—the remains of an old ship.

Buck believed he had found the stern section of the Lady Elgin. This side-wheel steamer broke in two and went down in a storm off Highland Park on September 8, 1860, after being rammed by a lumber schooner. During that night and through the next morning, 297 people lost their lives as they struggled toward the Winnetka shore. The catastrophe remains one of the worst inland disasters in American maritime history.

Buck assumed that his discovery was the stern of the Lady Elgin because it looked like a photograph he had seen in a Winnetka history book (Winnetka: The Biography of a Village, by Caroline Harnsberger). It showed the skeleton of part of an old ship lying on the beach near Maple Street, a few hundred feet from Buck’s house. Taken at the turn of the century, the photo was captioned as the remains of the Lady Elgin. Local legend has it that it was later towed back into the lake.

When word of Buck’s discovery spread, Harry Zych, credited with finding the bow section of the steamer off Highland Park in 1989, was called to the scene. After several dives Zych decided that the dimensions of the wreckage were consistent with the missing stern of the Lady Elgin.

During the next year the UASC, acting on behalf of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, visited the site five times. In 1994 it prepared a complete report about the Lady Elgin project, including the details of Buck’s find.

Valerie Olson-van Heest, a diver on the UASC team and author of the report, concluded that this section of the ship is most likely not the boat shown in the historic photo. She explained, “ . . . The presence of [boiler] pipes at the site also raises doubts . . . . The unlikelihood of these pipes surviving souvenir collectors on shore suggests that this particular wreckage may never have laid on shore.” In a recent interview Olson-van Heest commented, “My drawing of the wreck is 95 per cent accurate. As you can see, the strongest argument against it being the Lady Elgin stern is the fact that this ship is tapered at both ends, which suggests that it is not a broken half.” She added, “This wreck is a complete schooner, not a portion of a steamer.”

So the mystery of the ship lying in the shifting sands just off our shore might be another step closer to being solved.

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