'Lost on the Lady Elgin': A new account emerges

The Lady Elgin 1860 - Journal Sentinel file illustration

By John Gurda - Jsonline

Lake Michigan is acting up again. More than once in the past few weeks, high winds have whipped the water to a froth even inside the harbor, and any boat venturing out onto the open lake was in for a wild ride. We have entered what early Milwaukeeans dreaded as shipwreck season.

Ever since regular navigation on the Great Lakes began in the 1820s, thousands of vessels have gone down in "the gales of November"- and the gales of September and October as well.

This autumn marks the 150th anniversary of the worst shipwreck on the open waters of the Great Lakes. The doomed vessel was the Lady Elgin, a side-wheel steamship that has achieved legendary status in our region's marine lore.

Not only was the loss of life on the Lady Elgin appalling, but most of the victims were Milwaukeeans, and their fate was tied directly to tensions that were tearing the country apart in the years before the Civil War.

The story of the sinking is told in a new book, "Lost on the Lady Elgin," by Valerie van Heest, an author, designer and, importantly, a diver who has explored the vessel's wreck more than once. Van Heest's account is both the most complete and the most authoritative ever written on the tragedy.

The last voyage of the Lady Elgin was, in essence, a fund-raiser gone terribly awry. Most of its passengers were affiliated with the Union Guards, an Irish militia company based in Milwaukee's Third Ward.

The unit's commander was Garrett Barry, a West Point graduate who was also active in Democratic politics; local voters made Barry their county treasurer in 1859.

Wisconsin was a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment at the time, particularly under Gov. Alexander Randall, a "fire-breathing" abolitionist.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court went so far as to declare the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law safeguarding the rights of slave owners, unconstitutional. No other state took a stand so courageous - or so potentially seditious.

Bracing for a possible confrontation with federal authorities, Randall called for a declaration of loyalty from the state's militia companies. Barry, a Democrat, told Randall, a Republican, that taking sides against the United States "would render himself and his men guilty of treason." Randall promptly stripped Barry of his commission and disarmed the Union Guards.

Militia companies of the era were largely volunteer groups, typically organized along ethnic or class lines, whose activities were as much social as military. Randall could take their rifles away, but the Union Guards owned their own uniforms and their own band instruments.

No one could keep them from meeting and marching - or even from owning guns. In June 1860, with help from a sympathetic congressman, Barry purchased 80 government-surplus muskets for $2 each.

The $160 bill would top $4,000 in current dollars. Instead of assessing themselves for the muskets, the Union Guards decided to raise the money by sponsoring an excursion to Chicago - aboard the Lady Elgin.

Launched at Buffalo in 1851, the Elgin was a lavishly appointed "palace steamer," with 66 staterooms on its upper deck, a smoking lounge for "gentlemen" and a grand staircase to the lower deck.

Although it could accommodate hundreds of passengers, the ship doubled as a freight-carrier, offering regular service between Chicago (its home port), Milwaukee and destinations on Lake Superior. It also attracted a regular stream of excursionists.


Lake Michigan Great Lakes Milwaukee Lady Elgin side-wheel steamship Union Guards