The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (New York, NY), 22 Sept 1860, page 272

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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 two 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 land. The collision took place at the midships gangway and 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 larboard 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 Winetka. 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 Winetka. 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."

Among these last were the celebrated Herbert Ingram, M. P., proprietor of the Illustrated London News, and his son. The following brief biography of the father, which we take from the New York Herald, will not be out of place here:

"Mr. Ingram was originally a poor man and a mechanic. About twenty years ago he started the Illustrated London News. It was at this time that the illustrated papers first began to appear, and owing to the energy and judgment which Mr. Ingram bestowed upon the Illustrated News it succeeded, and got the start of five or six competitors which made their appearance about the same time in London. Since the starting of the pictorial paper Mr. Ingram's career has been one of unbroken prosperity, and everything he has put his hand to of any importance has succeeded with him. He has now a large landed property ; his paper is returning him a princely income, and he had established for himself a very high position in society. He was travelling in this country with his son, aged sixteen years. Both crossed a wide ocean in safety to meet a fearful fate."

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 the New Orleans Picayune, one of the most 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 within fifty yards of the beach, but were washed back. A great number of the passengers were highly respectable persons, and their circle of acquaintances 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 employee.

The following thrilling account of the endeavors to rescue the sufferers from the Lady Elgin, from the Chicago Press and Tribune, will be read with mournful interest:

The Shore at Winetka.

When our reporters reached Winetka, at ten 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 north-east, 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 affording a place and footing for the operations for rescue.

The whole beach for three miles we found strewed with fragments of the light upper portions of the ill-fated steamer, and out to sea, where the waves were rolling more heavily than is usually seen even in our September gales, the surface of the angry waters for miles in extent, as far as the eye could reach seaward, was dotted with fragments of the wreck, and rafts and spars, with what were clearly made out to be human beings clinging to them. At this time (ten 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 Winetka, 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 their 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 Winetka, 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. Of 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 in the agony that wrung the hearts on shore. Men, residents of Winetka and Evanston, stripped off all superfluous clothing and with ropes tied about them, held on shore, clashed nobly into the surf and only by such peril wrested the saved off 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 off 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 turn completely 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 in mid ocean.

James E. Evison and Wife Clinging to the Pilot-house.

The scenes of these fearful hours would fill a volume. The episode of the saving or the gallant James E. Evison, of Milwaukee, with his wife in his arms, was one that left few dry eyes among 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 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, not two hundred feet distant, watched and waited the result.

Edward Spencer Rescues Evison and his Wife.

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 and made laboriously toward his rescuer, not a second too soon. An 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 ran 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.

John Furlong on the Cabin Door.

John Furlong, when the boat began to break up, succeeded in finding a cabin door, with which he threw himself into the water. A man, who gave his name as Gough, from Indiana, made his way to Furlong's raft, which proving insufficient for both, and Gough refusing to relinquish his hold, Furlong left it and succeeded in reaching a cattle pen, upon which he and his comrade succeeded in reaching the shore. Gough was lost.

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 daring, such as so often sheds upon the fame of the brave sailor 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 Winetka 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 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 Hubbard, 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.

Captain John Wilson, of Chicago.

When the Lady Elgin passed into the hands of the Chicago firm of Hubbard, Spencer & Co., Captain John Wilson became her commander, in which post he continued up to the time of her loss, and it is feared that he has undoubtedly shared her melancholy fate. Captain Wilson was a gentleman of ten years experience in the navigation of the upper lakes, a fine, off-hand and vigilant man, and a popular commander among travellers on Lakes Michigan and Superior. He was also a man of family, his family residing in Chicago. He was respected by all who knew him, and his noble and gallant discharge of his duty, at a moment which would have tried the stoutest heart, will make his name respected and his fate mourned wherever the story of this fearful disaster shall be read or recounted. Peace to the gallant and devoted heart, and God comfort those he has left behind to mourn his loss.

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22 Sept 1860
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Jack Messmer
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (New York, NY), 22 Sept 1860, page 272