Sinking of the ”Lady Elgin” | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Sinking of the ”Lady Elgin”

Sinking of the ”Lady Elgin” | Wisconsin Historical Society

N. Water and E. Erie Streets, Milwaukee, Milwaukee County

The loss of the side-wheel steamship Lady Elgin was one of Lake Michigan's most tragic maritime disasters. On September 8, 1860, the ship, returning to Milwaukee from Chicago, sank following a collision nine miles off Winnetka, Illinois. Milwaukee's Irish Union Guards had chartered the grand Lady Elgin for a special Chicago benefit trip to raise funds to purchase new weapons. Wisconsin's Governor Alexander Randall, an opponent of the federal fugitive slave law, sus­pected the Union Guards of disloyalty to the state because they supported the fugi­tive slave law. Randall ordered the unit to disband and confiscated the Guards' weapons. In defiance, Union Guards commander Garrett Barry sought to arm the unit independently from the state. Aboard the ship were more than 500 Union Guards supporters, mostly from the city's Irish Third Ward, including city officials, members of two German militia units, and the Milwaukee City Band. In the early morning hours the ship was struck amidships by an unlit, overloaded lumber schooner, the Augusta. At least 300 lives were lost, decimating the Irish Third Ward community.

View a related article at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

Learn More

Explore more than 1,600 people, places and events in Wisconsin history.

[Source: McBride, Sarah Davis. History Just Ahead (Madison:WHS, 1999).]