Lady Elgin was a sidewheel steamer built in New York in 1851. Because her boilers and engine once powered a slave trading ship called Cleopatra, many believed she was a cursed ship from the moment of her launching. In 1854, Lady Elgin hit an uncharted reef off Manitowoc, Wisconsin while carrying hundreds of passengers. The following year, problems with the ship’s machinery led to her being towed to Chicago. Two years later, a fire caused severe damage to many of the ship’s staterooms and most of the hurricane deck. In 1858, she once again hit a reef, this time near Copper Harbor, Michigan. And she had to be towed twice in 1859 due to broken ship parts.
The Lady Elgin
Outside however the sailors had to contend with heavy thunderstorms, gale force winds, and the sudden appearance of a small schooner called the Augusta. Although the Lady Elgin was brightly lit, the Augusta was dark, making her difficult to see at night in a squall. And due to the heavy winds, her speed was eleven knots per hour. A coroner’s inquest later revealed that the Augusta’s second mate had seen the lights of the passenger steamer thirty minutes before the accident, but no attempt to correct course was taken for another twenty minutes.
When the Augusta finally took action, it was inexplicable and deadly. The vessel should have tried to pass Lady Elgin on her port side as was customary in such situations; instead it moved to her starboard. The Augusta hit Lady Elgin straight on, causing a great hole in the side of the ship. The collision ripped through the cabin, the hull and the guards. The powerful impact also sheared off the wheel. Almost immediately, the two ships separated.
etching of collision: Chicago Historical Society (Ralph Roberts Collection)
Within minutes of the impact, the Lady Elgin began to list. A surviving crew member wrote that right after the collision, he walked past the cabins where he “saw the ladies, pale, motionless, and silent. There was no cry, no shriek on board – no sound of any kind but that of the escaping steam and surging waters.” Because Captain Wilson knew that his ship was only about nine miles from Winnetka, Illinois, he encouraged passengers to hold onto the 5-foot long wooden life preserver floats that were distributed. But as the ship began to roll – and lightning illuminated a lake strewn with wreckage – many simply threw themselves overboard in terror. The Lady Elgin sank in thirty minutes.
There had been time to only lower two boats; 18 survivors reached shore in them. Fourteen made it to safety on a raft, and another 60 lived by floating on bits of wreckage. The drummer of the brass band survived by floating in his bass drum. Sadly, many who made it close to shore were then killed by the pounding surf and deadly undertow. Even Captain Wilson lost his life. He and forty other people spent hours drifting towards land as they clung to wreckage from the hurricane deck. So terrible were the conditions that by the time land was in sight, only eight remained alive. As they neared landfall, Captain Wilson tried to rescue a woman drowning in the breakers, but both of them died during the attempt.
Captain John Wilson of the Lady Elgin
Woodcut engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
Meanwhile the Augusta delivered her load of lumber to Chicago, unaware of the disaster out on the lake. The Augusta’s young captain, who turned twenty-seven on the day of the accident, was subsequently arrested, but a trial acquitted him of negligence. He had only recently taken command of the Augusta, and had not yet learned that the ship was difficult to steer when carrying cargo. Instead a coroner’s jury found his second mate grossly incompetent for not informing the captain when he first sighted the other ship. If any good resulted from this maritime tragedy, it was the ruling four years later that all sailing vessels had to carry running lights.
Engraving of a photo taken of the Augusta a few days after the collision
photo: S. Alschuler, Chicago
As for the newly rechristened Augusta, her owners also ordered her to be painted black. But a name change and a new paint job weren’t enough to conceal her past. When she arrived in Milwaukee with a cargo of lumber, word quickly spread that the ship that had killed so many Milwaukee citizens nine months earlier was now in the harbor. The former Augusta had to rapidly set sail before an outraged mob set fire to her.
Shortly after this incident, she was sent east where she sailed for several years along the Atlantic coast. Eventually however the Colonel Cook returned to the Great Lakes. But due to her reputation as a cursed ship, it was always difficult to hire a crew. It seemed that every sailor knew how many people had died when the Augusta ripped open the Lady Elgin. Those men who did sign on as crew members told tales of seeing strange lights on the night deck, or hearing scratching sounds on the wood planking – as though people were trying to claw their way to safety.
Finally on September 23, 1894, the Colonel Cook became stranded on a Lake Erie shoal, breaking apart near Euclid, Ohio. All of the crew survived. But when the former Augusta went down, it seemed to many that justice had finally been delivered by the lake itself.
Darius Nelson Malott, captain of the Augusta on the night of the collision, did not escape the curse either. In 1864, he was hired to captain the Great Lakes vessel Mojave. A few months later, the Mojave sank in Lake Michigan with all hands onboard – including Malott. Not only did the ship disappear close to the spot where the Lady Elgin went down, it sank on September 8, 1864. It was Captain Malott’s 31st birthday — and the fourth anniversary of the Lady Elgin disaster.
—Sharon Pisacreta, October 2011
Resources for the Augusta and the Lady Elgin:
The Wreck of the Steamer Lady Elgin at Brendon Baillod’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Research website
Was the Lady Elgin Cursed? at James Donahue’s True Stories of Ships and the Men That Sailed Them website
Webpage on the Lady Elgin at the Chicagology website
The folk ballad ‘Lost on the Lady Elgin‘ composed by Henry C. Work and performed by Lee Murdock
History of the Great Lakes – Wreck of the Lady Elgin, Publisher, Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1899, reproduced on the Michigan Family History Network.
Haunted Lake Michigan, Frederick Stonehouse, 2006.
Lost Passenger Steamships of Lake Michigan, Ted St. Mane, The History Press, 2010.
Shipwreck, Monsters, and Mysteries of the Great Lakes (Paperback or Kindle), Ed Butts, Tundra Books, 2010.
Graveyard of the Lakes, Mark. L Thompson, Wayne State University Press, 2000.
Model of the Lady Elgin