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The Lady Elgin Disaster
Visit the Pier Wisconsin web site for more about the Lady Elgin
Jerome Rodee and his wife, Margaret, were passengers on the Lady Elgin when it became one of the greatest disasters in the history of the Great Lakes. Jerome was born August 11, 1831, in Clinton County, New York, and came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 20, 1857. He was a member of the Milwaukee police force.
The Lady Elgin was built in Canada in 1850, designed for use on the Great Lakes, and soon dubbed "The Queen of the Great Lakes". A high-quality, side-wheel paddle boat built from white oak, this boat was built without bulkheads (a water tight wall placed in the hull of a ship to contain any leakage). At the time this was a common practice for a ship of this size. She was first used as a Canadian mail carrier. In 1855, when she was replaced by the railroad, the Lady Elgin became a charter ship, running about the Great Lakes.
In 1860 Lady Elgin was chartered by The Barry Guards to take them and their wives from Milwaukee to Chicago on the night of September 6th and return on the night of September 7th. This is where the story starts to becomes fuzzy.
An estimated 700 people (NOTE: It was only designed for about 500 passengers), along with 60 cows (for ballast) boarded the ship and enjoyed the festive atmosphere on the uneventful ride to Chicago. Unfortunately, this is only an estimate because the ship's log was lost with the ship. Even so, the ship was heavily over loaded. Some sources say the group went to see the Lincoln / Douglas debates, others say they were going to a festival, and others yet say the group was to march in a parade.
At any rate, as evening came around a storm started to move into the area. But the Lady Elgin left port on time, with her estimated 700 passengers on board. As the Journey continued the storm produced gale-force winds (between 40 mph and 80 mph). The Lady Elgin, being built for the Great Lakes and in excellent condition, had little trouble negotiating the obstacles the storm created. Unfortunately another ship, the Augusta, which was overburdened and over powered by the storm was near by. When the two ships came into sight, the captains tried to signal each other, but misinterpreted each others signals. The Augusta collided with the Lady Elgin, tearing off one of Lady Elgin's paddles and putting a large hole in her side. The Augusta, out of control, continued on her way.
The captain of the Lady Elgin (the renowned Captain Jack Wilson) turned the ship out toward sea to keep her out of the breaking waves along the shore. Then he lowered one of the three life boats overboard, with two crew members on board, to inspect the damage from the outside. At the same time the crew still onboard tried to plug the hole with mattresses (another common practice of the time) and the passengers began to panic and push the cows overboard.
The crew members in the life boat reported the damage but were unable to get back on board the ship so they made for shore in the hope of getting a rescue boat to come out. When they got there the local rescue station refused to send any boats out in the storm.
The water entering the hull of the Lady Elgin extinguished the fire in the boiler, leaving the ship without power, so Captain Wilson dropped the anchors. The two remaining lifeboats were loaded and lowered overboard, one of which was immediately swamped.
As the storm continued the ship began to break apart. The hull broke into three parts, and the upper deck broke off of each. The lower part of the front section, being anchored, sank in place currently about 12 miles off the shore of Winnetka. The middle section sank in a location found in 1987, but kept secret to this day due to legal battles over salvage rights. The stern of the hull washed ashore just north of Winnetka’s Cherry Street Beach. The decking broke into smaller and smaller parts which people clung to in the hope of rescue.
Only 160 people survived the wreck, including the two crew members lowered overboard. Many more made it to shore but were crushed by the waves and wreckage carried therein. Bodies were found through October of 1861 and as far away as Green Bay.
Over 1,000 children were orphaned by this wreck, and only 297 bodies were recovered. Local lore says that the stern of the Lady Elgin was pushed or dragged back into the lake 40 some years after the wreck.
Currently there is some wreckage in about 20 ft of water several hundred feet off the Winnetka shoreline. It is near the property of Clement Stone, just north of the Cherry Street Beach. Local lore says that this is the stern of the Lady Elgin, and Harry Zych (credited with finding the bow of Lady Elgin in 1989) concluded that the wreckage has the same dimensions as the missing stern of Lady Elgin. However, The Underwater Archeological Society of Chicago recently did a study of the wreck and concluded that it is unlikely that this is part of Lady Elgin, due to the presence of boiler pipes at the site which probably would have been taken by souvenir hunters.
The actual loss of life has never been confirmed but appears to be close to the following:
Saved - 160
Unaccounted for - 100
Although reported as lost at sea, Jerome Rodee and his wife were saved -- probably by riding a barrel to shore.