Sheboygan Mercury, November 15, 1851
Captain Ashby’s new steamer Isabella, on her first strip from Buffalo, touched at our pier this morning.
Sheboygan Mercury, November 22, 1851
Capt. Ashby’s new steamer, is called the Lady Elgin, instead of Isabella, as we published last week.
Sheboygan Mercury, November 29, 1851
Mr. Editor.—The Lady Elgin which arrived here from Buffalo on her first trip last week has been built this season under the skillful commander Capt. G. Appleby. She is one of the most commodious and delightfully constructed boats now on the Lakes. Her length is 265 feet, 33 feet beam, her engine was manufactured by the Secors of New York whose workmanship is the pride of the country. As for model, and beauty of symmetry, the Lady Elgin cannot be surpassed. She is one of those magnificent marine mansions possessing all the modern improvements both in her mechanical and culinary departments, which will unquestionably entitle her next season to be known as the lady of our lovely western waters. The state-rooms in this floating palace are finished in a style of magnificence rarely excelled; the births are lined with richest materials of drapery and festtooned in the most glorious manner which reminds the traveler of those superb oriental temples in the east. No pains or expense was evidently thought of by the owner while engaged in so laudable an undertaking, and I am convinced that the Lady Elgin under the nautical skill of her experienced Captain assisted by that Prince of good-hearted fellows H. K. Jerome, and a well-drilled crew will receive next spring an extensive patronage from the traveling community.—I speak understandingly, Mr. Editor.—I have travelled with Captain Appleby and most cheerfully testify that a more attentive kind-hearted commander cannot be met with on every Lake. Success to him and his gallant crew. R.W., Sheboygan Falls, Nov. 20, 1851.
Bird’s Eye View of Chicago in 1857, showing the Lady Elgin on the bottom, right.
Lithograph by Christian Inger, based on a drawing by I. T. Palmatary. Published by Braunhold & Sonne.
The Lady Elgin was a double decked wooden side-wheel steamer built at Buffalo, New York in 1851 by the well know ship chandlers Bidwell, Banta and Co. with Jacob W. Banta being the Master Carpenter,1 for Aaron D. Patchin and Gillman D. Appleby of Buffalo. She was named for the wife of Lord Elgin, the Governor General of Canada, and measured 252 ft. long by 33.7 ft. wide and 14.3 ft. deep. She carried 1037 gross tons beneath her decks and her steam engine sported a 54 inch cylinder with an 11 foot stroke that powered two 32 foot paddlewheels. The ship was built of white oak with frames with iron reinforcements to carry 200 cabin passengers, 100 deck passengers, 43 crew and 800 tons of freight and subsequently would have been somewhat overloaded the night of her loss. She was one of the larger steamers on the lakes and was very popular due to her luxurious accommodations and quick speed. She had been built to run between Buffalo, New York and Chicago, Illinois but had later been used to take excursionists through the new Soo Locks to the Lake Superior wilderness.
Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1856
LAKE SUPERIOR LINE FOR 1856.—In ita proper place will be found the advertisement of Messrs. A. T. Spencer & Co.’s line of Lake Superior steamers. It will be seem that the arrangements for this year are much better and more complete than were those for 1855. On the opening of navigation a boat will leave Chicago every three days for Superior, and from the latter, for Chicago, as often. The line is composed of the first-class steamers Lady Elgin, Superior, Ontonagon and Ogontz. The combined freight capacity of these four boats is seventeen thousand barrels, or eight thousand five hundred barrels per week. They will run in the following order during the season:
- The Lady Elgin will leave Chicago for Superior and intermediate ports, on April 7th and 19th, May 1st, 13th and 26th, June 7th and 19th, Sept. 1st, 13th and 25th, Oct. 7th and 20th, Nov. 1st, 13th.
The Ontonagon (US No. 18963) will leave Chicago for Ontanagon and immediate ports, on April 10th and 22d, May 5th, 16th and 29th, June 10th and 23d, July 4th, 17th and 29th, August 2d, 14th and 26th, Sept. 8th and 20th, Oct. 2d, 14th and 27th, Nov. 8th and 20th.2
The Superior will leave Chicago for Ontonagon and intermediate ports on April 14th, 16th and 29th, May 8th and 20th, June 2d, 14th, 26th, July 8th and 21st, August 2d, 14th and 26th, Sept. 8th and 20th, Oct 2d, 14th and 27th, Nov. 8th and 20th.3
The Ogontz will leave Chicago for Marquette and Portage Lake, and immediate ports, on April 17th and 29th, May 12th and 24th, June 5th, 27th and 29th, July 11th and 23d, August 4th, 16th and 28th, Sept. 9th and 22d, Oct. 4th, 16th and 28th, Nov. 10th.4
The enterprise of Messrs. Spencer & Co. is most commendable. This firm is largely engaged in the Lake Superior trade, and were, we believe, the first to open a regular line of communication between that country and Chicago. May they reap their full reward.
The Lake Michigan steamer, Lady Elgin, photographed by S. Alschuler as she lay at her dock in Chicago on the day before she was lost, resulting in the loss of 282 lives.
The Press and Tribune, September 10, 1860
A most appalling calamity has burst upon our community, and the other communities yet to be thrilled with the intelligence of a disaster which has just occurred on this lake, without parallel in the marine annals of then lakes. Other vessels have been lost amid scenes of horror that will cause them long to be remembered, but at the head of lake disasters will ever stand the fearful loss of the steamer Lady Elgin, and each recurrence of the anniversary of the night of Friday, September 7th, 1860, will be long observed by hundreds of lacerated hearts with tears and anguish.
The schooner Augusta (US No. 4366), Capt. D. M. Malott, came into our port early Saturday morning, and reported that on the night previous, about midnight she had collided with a large steamer on this lake, a few miles out of this city. The Augusta had suffered seriously in the encounter from the loss of her headgear, and was leaking badly. She had a full cargo of lumber, which had shifted in the collision, in which she was struck head on. The Captain knew nothing pf the extent of the disaster to the other vessel.
Almost simultaneously with her arrival came tidings from Evanston that brought the rest of the tale, in an intelligence of disaster that by eight o’clock A.M. filled our streets and places of public resort with anxious inquirers, when it was known that the steamer, in the encounter with the Augusta was the Lady Elgin, Capt. Jack Wilson, which left this port on Friday evening in her regular departure for Lake Superior, in which line she has run for some seasons past.
The steamer Lady Elgin on Friday morning left Milwaukee on a regular charter from the Independent Union Guards from that city, and brought about three hundred excursionists, gentlemen and ladies, into Chicago, where the party paused the day in interchange of hospitalities and socialites usual to such occasions. On her return she left as stated on her regular trip to Lake Superior, taking about fifty cabin passengers for Mackinac and pleasure points north, added to the excursion party.
The appalling intelligence came to hand that in the collision the steamer thus heavily freighted with precious life, was cut nearly in two amidships, and sunk in the lake about twelve miles off Winnetka, sixteen miles north of this city.
The early Waukegan train on the Chicago and Milwaukee road, having on board passengers from the North, among them the clerk and mate of the Elgin, brought the first detailed intelligence of the painful disaster. The terrible news ran from mouth to mouth, and not more than an hiur elapsed before it was heard in the outermost streets of the city. A rush to the office of Messrs. Hibbard & Hunt, on South Water street, and that of A. T. Spencer & Co., its owners of the boat, began as soon as the intelligence got abroad, and all day long they were besieged by anxious crowds of those who had friends or relatives aboard, and by the thousands of sympathizers who made the cause of the sufferers their own.
Groups of men at every street corner, anxiously discussing the cause and consequences of the awful calamity, were a constant feature of the day. The business of the day was forgotten. On ‘Change, in shops, hotelsm offices and stores, the disaster was the theme. The saved, as they were sent down ion the trains run on the occasion, were soon surrounded by inquiring crowds, and in many cases before they were permitted to get off their wet clothing, were compelled to halt and repeat the fearful tale over and over again. Every new item, every gleam of hope, every subtraction from the number of the lost, was joyfully received.
At Spencer & Co.’s, the Agents, the inquiries for friends were most frequent and pressing. Many a hope was dashed, amny a heart was smitten with despair, and many a wail went up there. Men, women, and boys, came tumbling in and went weeping out.
The excitement continued to a late hour. The issue of an extra from the office of the Press and Tribune, just before noon, containing the meagre particulars that had come to hand, only served to whet the public appetite for more. In the evening, the hotels were filled, and not until midnight arrived, and the details were thoroughly discussed, did the crowds therein sensibly abate. It was a day that Chicago will long remember.
With commendable humanity and promptness, Supt. Baldwin of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, placed at the disposal of the owners of the Elgin and numerous friends of the passengers, a special train which with the Coroner, physicians, and a large party of citizens, left the city following the regular train at 9:45 A.M. for Winnetka, off which the disaster occurred.
We dispatched a special reporter to Milwaukee by the regular morning train, and others to the more immediate scene of disaster—the shore at Winnetka—where the train arrived about ten A.M.
The evening of Friday set in with a wind moderately high, though not such as would have deterred the Elgin from leaving; yet it is still likely she would have lain by, but for the excursion party, who had made no calculation on remaining over. Soon after she left, however, and scarcely could she have got outside, a heavy thunder storm came up, about midnight, accompanied by an increase of wind, which grew to a perfect gale. In such a commotion of the elements the collision took place, the sea running high, and the gale increasing throughout the night, and almost the entire of Saturday.
So full are the details our reporters have been able to procure from the statement of passengers appended, that we prefer to leave the main narrative of the collision and sinking of the steamer to be gained from such sources, while we pass to later scenes scarcely less fearful and harrowing, on the surf-washed shore of Winnetka, and at Milwaukee where obviously the fearful calamity visits hundreds of homes.
The Shore at Winnetka.
When our reporters reached Winnetka, at 10 A.M., the surf was rolling in heavily, and breaking in thunder along the beach, the gale having risen to a fearful fury, from the northeast, and thus nearly on shore. The shore there is an uneven bluff, ranging from thirty to sixty feet in height, with a narrow strip of beach at its base. At some points the heavy surf made directly against the bold bluff. At most points, however, a narrow tract intervened unwashed by the waves, and so afforing a place and foothold for the operations for rescue.
The whole beach for three miles we found strewed with fragments of the light upper portion of the ill-fated steamer, and out to sea, where the waves were rolling more heavily than is usual seen even in our September gales, the surface of of the angry waters for miles in extent, as far as the eye could reach sea-ward, was dotted with fragments of the wreck, and rafts and spars, with what were clearly made cut to be human beings clinging to them. At this time (10 A.M.) various authorities make out that from eighty to one hundred persons could have been counted driving at the mercy of the maddened elements, towards the high, rolling breakers and surf washed beach and bluff, whence thousands with straining eyes watched their progress, and with pale cheeks noted, as alas, too many, met their fate in the waves.
The work of rescue began about five A.M., a little north of Winnetka, near the country seat of Mr. Gage, where the earliest intelligence was received by the survivors who came ashore in the steamer’s yawl, among whom was the Steward, Mr. Rice, to whose appended narrative we refer. This boat was followed by another, the last reaching the shore a little later. The neighborhood was aroused. Word was sent to the dwellings at the station below, and a party of men were preparing to go up to the vicinity where the boats had landed, when the attention was drawn to their own shore as still more painfully to be the scene of the perils and loss of life, and noble daring of the day. The wind not being directly on shore, carried each later arrival a little further south, and now rafts bearing human beings were seen nearing Winnetka, where the country residence of Ex-Alderman Carter of this city occupies the high bluff.
Parties of men were on the alert and ready for the work of rescue. Word was sent to Evanston, and citizens and its entire student community came up in force. Attention was first directed to a large raft coming in steadily but bravely over the waves, upon which were standing a large group of human beings, since known to have been some fifty in number. Around and beyond it on all sides were single survivors and groups of two or three, or more, but painful interest centred about the fate of that larger raft. It neared the seething line of surf. With a glass, those on shore could see that the company on board seemed to obey the orders of one. That ladies and children were there—hearts on shore forgot to beat for an instant, and then saw the raft break and disappear in the seas. Od the entire number on board only fifteen names appear in our list of the saved. Of the lost was the brave heart who tried his best to save those committed to his charge, and perished in the attempt—brave Captain Jack Wilson, the commander of the unfortunate steamer.
The work of rescue, however, did not pause by the agony that wrang the hearts on shore. Men, residents of Winnetka, and Evanston, stripped off all superfluous clothing and with ropes tied about them, held on shore, dashed nobly into the surf and only by such peril wrested the saved of the wreck. Where many wrought so well we cannot here particularize, but we accord the universal sentiment of the day in the assertion that the Theological teachings of the Garrett Biblical Institute must include a liberal amount of “Muscular Christianity,” for Messrs. Spencer and Combs of that institution were foremost among the heroes of the day.
Thenceforward the scene on the shore until two P.M., when the last survivor was drawn out of the surf, was a scene which the lookers-on will never forget. Of its nature the best proof is the fact that the from forty to fifty persons saved were less than one-third of the number that came in from the lake to pass the fearful gauntlet of the line of breakers, several hundred feet of shore, where under the very eyes and almost within hail of those on shore, we saw the majority perish. The rafts would come into the line of surf, dip to the force of the waves and then completely turn over. Again and again would rafts containing from one to five or more persons gradually near the shore and then be lost where a stone’s cast would reach them, yet really as far from human help as if mid ocean.
The scenes of these fearful hours would fill a volume. The episode of the saving of the gallant James E. Evison, of Milwaukee, with his wife in his arms, was one that left few dry eyes among the the spectators. He had secured himself and his precious burden to the severed roof of the pilot-house, a stout octagonal, canvas covered frame. As this came in, he was seen upon it holding in one arm a woman. Again and again the waves broke over them, and more than once both were submerged. Still they came on, passed the first breakers and midway thence to the the shore their raft grounded, from some projection beneath. There it hung, beaten and swept by roller after roller, and for minutes making no progress, while the breathless spectators noy two hundred feet distant, watched and waited the result.
Edward Spencer, before named, with a rope about his waist, dashed into the waves, once, twice and again, but was washed back by the huge seas. It was a critical moment; he followed a retreating roller, as it passed the two on the frail structure, the man with his burden in his arms leaped into the water made laboriously towards his rescuer, not a second too soom; and angry roller was at his back; if it reached him he was lost; the rescuer toiled nobly, they neared one another, and just as the outstretched hands met, all was lost in a mighty submerging wave—its refluence told with a cheer that rang along the shore that they were safe, and the next instant eager hands were bearing two limp exhausted burdens, the husband and wife, up the steep bluffs.
Thus amid such scenes of peril aqnd daring, hours passed, the gale still continuing. The saved were taken at once to one or the other of the scatttered Winnetka homes, and never shone humanity nobler than that which was ready and instant and incessant with everything that could relieve the sufferers.
To mention the names of those who were prominent in such relief would read almost like a directory of that beautiful suburb, but Messrs. Carter, Gage, Peck, Davis, Garland, Millard and others need no eulogy at our hands.
The shore was strewn with fragments of the wreck. Captain Wilson during the interval offered, caused all available potions of the upper works of the steamer to be cut away, that thus raft material might be abundant when the steamer should go down. But for the high seas running, and as it was could there have been some means of rescue outside the line of surf, the wisdom of Captain Wilson’s order would diubtless have saved his own brave life and those of many others now lost.
We give the names of the saved and lost in our lists complete as far as the intelligence received both in this city and Milwaukee, up to Saturday evening, could make the same. The survivors have mainly gone home to their sorrowing and stricken city.
Prominent among those from this city who periled their safety in their efforts to save the unfortunates were Gurdon S. Hubbard, Coroner James, Dr. Gore, S. B. Berry, and others.
Lady Elgin Shipwreck
Cook County Map
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 22, 1860
The Lady Elgin left Chicago on Friday, September 7th, with nearly four hundred passengers, many of them excursionists, and nearly all, we may presume, summer travellers, who anticipated only pleasure from their voyage. During the day merriment prevailed—there was music, dancing, and all which could tend to render the terrible termination more striking and appalling by contrast. Just before daybreak on Saturday, all on board were startled by a rude collision—the steamer being run into by a schooner named the Augusta, which was running at the rate, it is said, of eleven knots an hour! Of course the Lady Elgin was terribly shattered, so much so, that after drifting for half an hour, and slowly sinking, she went down in three hundred feet of water, about thirty-five miles from Chicago, and ten miles from land. As is too often the case, there had been a criminally careless neglect in supplying life-boats and life-preservers, so that of all on board only some fifty or sixty were saved. The statement of Mr. Carryl, the clerk of the Lady Elgin, given in his own words as follows, details succinctly the disaster:
- The steamer Lady Elgin left the harbor of Chicago at half-past eleven o’clock on Friday evening last, for a pleasure excursion to Lake Superior. There were about two hundred and fifty excursionists from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on board, and among them the Union Guard of that city. About half-past tw o’clock this (Saturday) morning, the schooner Augusta, of Oswego, collided with the steamer when she was about thirty-five miles from Chicago and ten miles from the midships gangway and The two vessels separated land. The collision took place at on the larboard side of the steamer. The two vessels separated immediately afterwards, and the schooner, having her sails set and the wind blowing freshly, drifted from the steamer very soon. When the collision occurred there were music and dancing going forward in the principal cabin. Instantly after the crash of collision both ceased, and the steamer sank half an hour after. Passing through the cabins I 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 waves. Whether the ladies were silent from fear, or were not aware of the imminent fate which they stood quietly awaiting, I could not say. A boat was lowered for the purpose of examining the leak, which soon made itself known; but there were only two oars to row it with, and unfortunately at that moment some one had taken possession of one of them, and the boat was consequently useless. We succeeded in reaching the larbord wheel once, wherein the leak was, but were soon driven from it by the fury of the waves, and washed ashore at the village of Winnetka. There were only two other boats on the steamer. One of these took thirteen persons from her, all of whom were saved. The other boat took eight persons, but only half that number reached land alive, the other four being drowned on the beach when the boat drifted there. The rush of water through the leak had extinguished the fires before I left the steamer, and the engines had ceased working in consequence. The wind was blowing so hard and in such a direction, as to drift the boats, bodies of the drowned and fragments of the wreck up the lake, and most of them will probably be washed ashore in the vicinity of Winnetka. I fancied I could see from the beach to which I was drifted fragments of wreck and human beings struggling with the waters, drifting towards the shore.
There are none who will not sympathise with one so widely known and so eminent in a department of journalism which has of late years acquired such influence. Not less to be lamented is the death of the well-known Colonel Lumsden, of the New Orleans Picayune. Mr. Lumsden was a North Carolinian by birth, and over fifty years old. He went to New Orleans some thirty years since, where he worked at first as a printer, till he entered into partnership with George W. Kendall, who aided him in establishing prominent Southern papers. His connection with the Picayune continued till the accident to the Lady Elgin terminated his life. Mr. Lumsden had his wife, two daughters and son—the latter a smart lad of fourteen—with him on board the Lady Elgin, and all have met a common, lamentable and gloomy fate. It should be stated that Captain John Wilson, of the Lady Elgin, is said to have behaved with the utmost bravery. He was drowned within one hundred feet of the shore, after doing all in his power to save his passengers. Nearly one hundred came back within fifty yards of the beach, but were washed back. A great number of the passengers acquaintances were highly respectable persons, and their circle of acquaintances ere very large. In the First Ward of Milwaukee it is said there is scarcely a house or place of business which has not lost some inmate or employe.
The Lake Steamer Lady Elgin.
The Lady Elgin was built in Canada about nine or ten years ago, and named after the wife of the then Governor-General of British America, Lord Elgin She was a side-wheel mail steamer, of about 300 feet in length and 1,000 tons burthen. She was a fast and favorite boat, and went on three or four excursions annually. For the first five years after her construction the Lady Elgin was employed in the Canadian traffic of the lakes, and carried the mails along the northern shores, while the Grand Trunk Railway, which now performs that service, was yet incomplete, or even in embryo. Four years ago she was purchased by Hibbard, Spencer & Co., of Chicago, to whom she belonged till the calamity which it is our painful duty to record put an end to the history of her now tragically famous career.5
Captain Jack Wilson on the Raft.
All the survivors unite in according to Captain Jack Wilson, the commander of the ill fated steamer, praise for bravery and caring. such as so often sheds upon the fame of the brave sailor on laurels that time cannot dim. True to his duty and his manliness, he was throughout foremost in confronting danger, cool and collected in its encounter, instant and earnest for the safety of his passengers. For a long time in that company of fifty on the raft, he held in his arms the young child of a lady passenger, cheered his companions in peril, and his last words as he neared the fatal line of surf were of encouragement and cheer, “Now, boys, look out for the breakers ahead.” Warning timely but vain, the raft parted and Captain Wilson went down in the angry waters, his last act being to attempt to save two children. Honor to the memory of the brave. his house in Coldwater, Michigan, is desolated and stripped of as brave and true a heart as ever beat in a sailor’s bosom.
Thus amid such scenes of peril and daring hours passed, the gale still continuing. The saved were taken at once to one or the other of the scattered Winneika homes, and never shone humanity nobler than that which was ready and instant and incessant with everything that could relieve the sufferers.
To mention the names of those who were prominent in such relief would read almost like a directory of that beautiful suburb, but Messrs. Carter, Gage, Peck, Davis, Smith and others need no eulogy at our hands.
The shore was strewn with fragments of the wreck. Captain Wilson during the interval offered caused all available portions of the upper works of the steamer to be cut away, that thus raft-material might be abundant when the steamer should go down. But for the high seas running, and as it was could there have been some means of rescue outside the line of surf, the wisdom of Captain Wilson’s order would doubtless have saved his own brave life and those of many others now lost.
The schooner which collided with the ill-fated Lady Elgin had her name changed from Augusta to Colonel Cook, by act of Congress, on February, 1861, and now goes forth to try a larger sea than Lake Michigan. The schooner Colonel Cook, piloted by Capt. Humphrey, cleared from Milwaukee for Liverpool with a cargo of 15,000 bu. wheat and 5,000 ft. of lumber. We hope she may have a prosperous voyage, steer clear of all dangerous craft, and be sold out to good advantage on the other side of the salt pond.
Henry C. Works wrote a song in 1861 about the fate of the steamer in a song named “The Lost of the Lady Elgin.”
- Up from the poor man’s cottage, forth from the mansion door;
Sweeping across the waters and echoing ‘long the shore,
Caught by the morning breezes, Borne on the evening gale;
Cometh a voice of mourning, a sad and solemn wail.
chorus: Lost on the Lady Elgin! Sleeping to wake no more!
Number’d in that three hundred, who failed to reach the shore.
Oh! ‘Tis the cry of children
Weeping for parents gone;
Children who slept at evening
But orphans awoke at dawn.
Sisters for brother weeping,
Husbands for missing wives —
Such are the ties dissever’d
With those three hundred lives.
chorus: Lost on the Lady Elgin! Sleeping to wake no more!
Number’d in that three hundred, who failed to reach the shore.:
Staunch was the noble steamer,
Precious the freight she bore;
Gaily she loosed her cables,
A few short hours before.
Grandly she swept our harbor,
Joyfully rang her bell;
Little thought we e’er morning
‘Twould toll so sad a knell.
chorus: Lost on the Lady Elgin! Sleeping to wake no more!
Number’d in that three hundred, who failed to reach the shore.
Four years after the disaster, a new rule required sailing vessels to carry running lights. The Lady Elgin disaster remains the greatest loss of life on open water in the history of the Great Lakes
Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1989
It took diver Harry Zych 16 years to get to lost treasures at the bottom of Lake Michigan. And it will be a while before he gets to the bottom of the controversy caused when he found them: the water-worn hulls of two century-old steamers with the remains of nearly 400 passengers, their valuables-perhaps worth thousands of dollars-and priceless pieces of history from two of the worst disasters in the Great Lakes.
Zych said the remains belonged to him. The state said no way. And so the legal battle began. Citing a 122-year-old admiralty law called the General Law of Finds, Zych, 41, filed a federal lawsuit seeking ownership of Lady Elgin and Seabird, the sunken ships he found last spring along the North Shore.
Lady Elgin was a luxury steamer that set off from Wisconsin to a Democratic rally in Chicago on the morning of Sept. 8, 1860. On her way home that night she was rammed amidship by the schooner Augusta, which had no navigation lights.
Lady Elgin`s crew tried gamely to patch the gaping hole, but the engine and pumps failed, the hull quickly filled with water and the ship broke into pieces. About 300 people died. Most of the 100 or so survivors floated to shore on chunks of debris.
Except for the 1915 Eastland disaster, in which 812 people drowned in the Chicago River, the sinking of Lady Elgin is considered by maritime experts to be the most catastrophic disaster in Great Lakes history.
Eight years after the Lady Elgin disaster, a ship hand on the Seabird threw a shovel of hot ashes into the wind and the embers flew back and ignited the wooden craft. Ninety-nine people went down with the ship. The two vessels remained in their watery graves, untouched, until last spring.
Zych has not told many people exactly where the boats are, particularly not state officials. The officials contend that the lakebed belongs to Illinois, and just as one can`t legally find money in someone else`s wallet, Zych can`t claim shipwrecks on state land.
But Zych said, “Fishermen keep the fish they find in Lake Michigan. . . . Why is the state trying to lay exclusive claim to boats they put forth no effort to find and have no money to preserve?”
The state didn`t log the 16 years of almost daily searches for the historic wrecks, Zych said, and it didn`t spend the thousands of dollars he has spent trying to find them.
So Zych seeks salvage rights to the ships or some compensation for his efforts to find them, according to his lawyer, Paul Keller. Since the state has offered no financial reward, Zych wants jurisdiction over the vessels, and he wants the court to enjoin anyone, particularly the state, from interfering in his salvage efforts.
“I don`t have enough money to properly preserve the wrecks. The state doesn`t have enough money. The museums do,” said Zych, who owns American Diving and Salvage Co. at 3451 N. Damen Ave. “But the museums are funded by the state, and to help me would be to bite the hand that feeds them. So now we`re all in a bind.”
Therein lies the gist of this David-Goliath battle that has been waged between divers and states for years.
In this precedent-setting local case, Assistant Atty. Gen. William Kane is representing the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Illinois Department of Transportation, which controls state waters.
Those groups want U.S. District Judge Ilana Rovner to grant the state outright ownership of the wrecks or dismiss the case on the grounds of the federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which would automatically give the state possession.
That law gives states jurisdiction over sunken ships of any historical value, no matter who finds them. Kane sites a slew of other laws, including the Illinois Human Grave Protection Law, which require a permit to take artifacts from shipwrecks and subject violators to criminal charges.
“The laws are so clear that the wrecks belong to the state that this is more a historical-archeological question than a legal one,” Kane said. “This whole thing brings to a head the issue of how the state will work with private groups who find historical matter.”
But local laws are not clear.
In giving states jurisdiction, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act also urges them to establish legislative guidelines regarding shipwrecks. Illinois has not done so and in that respect “Zych has a very legitimate complaint,” said Philip Elmes, president of the Chicago Maritime Society.
“Right now the state is just exerting authority,” Elmes said. “There are no regulations for divers to follow, and officials have indicated that there won’t be for at least two more years. . . . In pushing the state toward setting some rules, Mr. Zych has our support.”
Aside from that, Elmes said, his organization and “practically any museum you could name” side with the state.
“This is one of the more significant cultural and historical finds of the century,” Elmes said.
“To turn it over to one man and/or remove parts of it would be to disturb the natural environment and destroy the pattern of history.”
Still, Zych contends: “Throughout history, people have made contributions to society and gained something for their efforts-their face on a stamp, a street named after them, something.
“I want to know what finding two great historic shipwrecks is worth.”
All the state can afford is a hearty “thank you,” said Thomas Emerson, an archeologist with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which manages relics found in Illinois. Emerson said the state is struggling to preserve the shipwrecks it already has found.
“We really appreciate Mr. Zych`s efforts,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that we weren’t looking for the wrecks. If anything, they should stay where they are.”
A diver for 20 years whose specialty is tracking down boats and airplanes lost in the lake, Zych said he wants to put the artifacts in a public place visible to everyone, not just a few scuba divers.
He said that he knows more about preservation than the state realizes and that he will work with any agency-museum or otherwise-willing to help him “save” the ships.
“I think we all want the same thing-preservation,” Zych said. “It’s just a question of who, when and how.”
1 In 1865 Mr. John Gregory bought the Jacob Banta shipyard that was located at West Charles and Harrison streets.
2 The propellor Ontonagon was built in 1856 by Bidwell & Banta, with Jacob W. Banta as the Master Carpenter. Albert T. Spencer of Chicago was the original owner. On September 23, 1883, it caught on fire & ran ashore, allowed to burn to total loss at Stag Island, Saint Clair River.
3 The Superior was built in 1842 at Perrysburg, Ohio. Original Owner was Captain D. Wilkinson, et.al., Maumee River, Ohio. Rudder broken in storm in October, 1856. She was thrown into shallows of Pictured Rocks, Michigan; Around 30-50 died Reportedly went to pieces within 15 minutes Wreck site is a popular dive target
4 The propellor Ognotz, was built in 1848 at Cleveland, Ohio. Original owner was C.W. Marsh et al, Sandusky, Ohio. Sank in Chicago harbor in 1861 then stranded and wrecked in 1862.
5 The report by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper stating the Lady Elgin was built in Canada is in error. The sidewheeler was built in Buffalo, NY and was named for the wife of Lord Elgin, the Governor General of Canada, which probably contributed to the confusion.