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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Schooner That Sank the Lady Elgin


At 2:30 on the morning of September 8, 1860, the sidewheel steamer Lady Elgin, carrying about 300 Milwaukeeans who'd spent the previous day in Chicago, collided with the tiny schooner Augusta about 10 miles out from Waukegan, Ill. The captain of the Augusta had been unable to see clearly in the rainy darkness, and his headgear and jib boom had stabbed the larger vessel amidships.

The Lady Elgin signaled that no assistance was needed and the smaller vessel pulled away in the mist, neither captain realizing that water was already streaming into the Lady Elgin's hold. About half an hour later her boilers and engine broke through the bottom of the hull, and the ship quickly went to pieces. About 300 people drowned. The little Augusta, meanwhile, limped into Chicago the following morning, and only then found out the terrible consequences of the collision.

Most of the dead were from a volunteer military unit formed in Milwaukee's Third Ward, where calls quickly went out to destroy the murderous schooner. The election of Abraham Lincoln that fall and the approaching Civil War distracted the mob, however, and a few months later the Augusta returned unnoticed to be refitted at the Milwaukee docks. Its damaged equipment was repaired, its hull was scraped and repainted, and it was re-christened the Colonel Cook.

But in the spring, word leaked out to the relatives of the drowned soldiers that the assassin was near at hand and they organized to burn it down to the water line. Hearing about the plot, the owners of the schooner tracked down Capt. Jasper Humphrey and informed him that vengeance was descending on the docks. With less than two hours' notice, Humphrey gathered up his wife, his ten-year-old daughter Emily, and their belongings, and sailed out onto Lake Michigan before the mob reached the boat.

Unable to return, the Humphreys transformed the little schooner into their home and headed down the lakes. Reaching Buffalo, they learned how close their escape had been. At Montreal, they decided to continue east, and sailed to Boston and New York to engage in the coasting trade. While the Civil War unfolded inland, they worked their way south. At Baltimore, Capt. Humphrey hired an African-American crew and headed for the Caribbean. When they put ashore at Mobile, Alabama (a slave state), the authorities immediately imprisoned the crew because free African Americans were considered a security threat. Capt. Humphrey spent his days with them, making sure they received sufficient food and decent treatment, until he could put out to sea with them again.

After trading as far west as Texas, the Colonel Cook retraced her route back to New York, where Capt. Humphrey finally sold her and repaid the Milwaukee owners. His daughter Emily later married a ship captain, sailed with him to Europe, and accompanied his voyages on the Great Lakes. One day at Marquette, Michigan, when he commanded an enormous passenger steamer like the Lady Elgin, Emily's husband called her over to the rail to look at a small vessel docked next to them. "Why, if it isn't the Colonel Cook -- my old home!" she exclaimed. And she never saw the little schooner again.

[This is just one of thousands of stories included in the back issues of our Wisconsin Magazine of History. All 360 issues of the Magazine, dating back to World War One and containing more than 2,000 articles on Wisconsin history, will appear online here this winter. Watch our home page at www.wisconsinhistory.org for announcements, and meanwhile visit its predecessor, Wisconsin Historical Collections, for online access to hundreds of other Wisconsin stories and documents.]
:: Posted in Curiosities on October 28, 2006

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