Rescuing the Lady Elgin

Gazette Article by: Jane Carroll
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1996

Marathon Litigation Continues over Future of Wreck


Excursion steamer Lady Elgin c1860 Image courtesy of Chicago Sunday Tribune

September 8, 1996, marked the 136th anniversary of the wreck of the Lady Elgin, one of the worst inland maritime disasters in United States history.

The ship, one of the largest vessels on the Great Lakes at the time, was rammed during a thunderstorm by the schooner Augusta at approximately 2:00 a.m. on September 8, 1860. It broke up within minutes, and despite heroic rescue efforts by 100 Winnetka residents, 297 passengers died.

To this day, the wreck lies at the bottom of Lake Michigan, its contents unrecovered, despite lengthy and strenuously contested legal battles between the State of Illinois and a private salvor, Harry Zych.

Zych discovered the wreck in 1989, after an expensive 20-year search. He asserted the “law of finds,” seeking judgment to confirm his title. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Illinois Department of Transportation brought suit, however, claiming that the vessel and its contents belonged to the people of the State of Illinois and should be preserved and displayed in a museum setting for the public benefit. Their suit was based on the federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act (1989), which guaranteed the public continued and full access to all shipwrecks in state waters; and the State of Illinois’ Abandoned Shipwreck Act (1989), which stated that wreckage is the exclusive property of the state.

Zych found a way around this legislation. He purchased the ownership rights to the Lady Elgin from CIGNA, the successor to the insurance carrier that had covered the cargo and hull. Claiming that the carrier had instructed its agents not to abandon the vessel, he asserted it was not subject to abandoned shipwreck legislation. The United States District Court upheld Zych’s claim, but the decision was later reversed.

In 1993 the legal battle was finally settled out of court. Zych gave up his title claim and in return obtained official recognition for his valuable contribution to the cultural heritage of the people of the State of Illinois. He was designated finder of the wreck and was to receive $20,000 for making the discovery and recovering artifacts for historic preservation. (He was never paid.) He agreed to return any of the artifacts he recovered.

However, two years later the State of Illinois accused Zych of not returning some of the artifacts. He countered that the state was permitting another group to photograph the wreckage. The parties resumed legal battle when the Illinois Historic Preservation Society sued Zych, again invoking the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Margaret McBride ruled against the state, and Zych was allowed to keep the artifacts he had discovered; the state has appealed this decision.

Throughout the continuing litigation Harry Zych has stated that his goal is to document the Lady Elgin in its location on the lake’s bottom, collect her artifacts for display in a traveling exhibit, and establish a permanent home for the collection. According to Zych, “The state’s philosophy is for ‘preservation in place.’ The State never has had the funds to do anything. The whole situation is ruined due to the passage of time, and the public has really lost out.”

It is unfortunate that the interests of Harry Zych and the State of Illinois are so divergent. How beneficial it would have been if a joint venture between a private excavator and the State of Illinois could have been mounted. Instead the Lady Elgin remains at the bottom of Lake Michigan, becoming encrusted with zebra mussels, inaccessible to a public still curious about this historic disaster.

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