Event: Lady Elgin Collision and Sinking in Lake Michigan, September 8, 1860


Lady Elgin Collision and Sinking in Lake Michigan, September 8, 1860


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The PS Lady Elgin was a wooden-hulled sidewheel steamship that sank in Lake Michigan off the fledgling town of Port Clinton, Illinois, whose geography is now divided between Highland Park and Highwood, Illinois, after she was rammed in a gale by the schooner Augusta in the early hours of September 8, 1860. The passenger manifest was lost with the collision, but the sinking of the Lady Elgin resulted in the loss of about 300 lives in what was called “one of the greatest marine horrors on record”. 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.

Emilia Nafe was in her 80s, when she and others talked about early pioneer life as part of a historic preservation effort in the 1930s headed by Jesse Lowe Smith, founder of the first Highland Park Historical Society. Recalling the Lady Elgin:

“About 50 bodies were washed ashore, and many of them were buried here, where the Miller house now stands on North Green Bay Road,” Nafe said, adding that the remains of about 20 people were later moved when a house was built there.

Archivist Nancy Webster said the Lighthouse property Nafe referenced sits near Oak St, and Walker Ave (where B’Nai Torah once stood) on the lake’s bluff. But Nafe’s claim and others like it have never been verified, she said.

The five-year-old Port Clinton lighthouse had been decommissioned just before the Lady Elgin event. The light housekeeper and his family were still residing there and could witness events unfolding.

Mrs. Mary Josephine Cox, a daughter of Owen Mohaghan, former lighthouse keeper. Mrs. Cox was born in the lighthouse. She recalled, “A body of a well-dressed woman having on a hoop skirt and wearing a long gold chain attached to a watch, being washed ashore in the vicinity of the lighthouse and the identity being established some long time after the remains had been laid to rest.”

“These are people who had the actual experience, the living memory,” said Julia Johnas, then Highland Park library’s director of adult services, of the 1934 interviews.

Author/Historian Scott Bundschuh research has turned up the Schooner ‘Call the St. Mary’ sank on Sept 10, 1860, close to where the Lady Elgin went down. Everyone aboard the schooner perished.
Chicago Maritime Museum told us about this, as well. They suggest some of the Lady Elgin and St. Mary’s bodies were co-mingled.
The wreck of Lady Elgin was discovered in 1989 off Highwood, Illinois by Harry Zych. He was later awarded ownership in 1999 after a protracted legal battle. The wreck site has been cataloged by the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago.

Recorded to zoom on September 8, 2020.