Lightning tore through the slate-black sky above lower Lake Michigan during the early hours of Saturday, September 8, 1860, illuminating the palatial sidewheel steamer Lady Elgin as she lumbered north from Chicago through raging seas and gale winds. The vessel’s perilous journey would end abruptly and tragically when the schooner Augusta collided with the steamer, piercing a gaping and fatal wound in the steamer’s port side. Within minutes, the Lady Elgin broke up and foundered, forcing her terrified passengers and crew into the maelstrom. Some drowned quickly; others clung to small bits of wreckage throughout the horrific early morning. Most lost their lives in the churning surf along shore. Over three hundred people, mainly Irish-Americans from Milwaukee’s Third Ward, perished in the disaster—the worst maritime tragedy ever on the open waters of the Great Lakes. Newspaper headlines announced the “alarming calamity,” survivors recounted their terrifying ordeals, tens of thousands turned out for funerals in Milwaukee, and the tragedy evoked far-reaching effects, including the establishment of a lighthouse and life saving service at Evanston, Illinois. However, the volatile 1860 presidential election leading to the start of the Civil War would overshadow the tragedy of the Lady Elgin’s loss, and the memory of the accident faded.
One hundred twenty-nine years after the disaster, the Lady Elgin became headline news again when the discovery of her wreck incited a legal battle over ownership, leading the state of Illinois to conduct a survey, initially directed by the author, to document several areas of debris off the shores of northern Illinois. Award-winning author Valerie van Heest, drawing on an extensive collection of primary materials amassed during and after the survey work on the Lady Elgin, provides a copiously researched historical narrative that recounts the golden age of passenger travel on the Great Lakes on the eve of a pivotal presidential election and describes in detail the terrifying loss of the Lady Elgin as four hundred souls fought for their lives. The 150th anniversary of the Lady Elgin’s loss is commemorated by this comprehensive account of the disaster.
What Readers are Saying:
“Valerie van Heest combines her masterful knowledge of shipwreck history in an enormously spellbinding account of one of the worst tragedies of the Great Lakes. She reveals in vivid detail the treacherous events that unfolded with the sinking of the Lady Elgin and the terrible loss of men, women and children into the dark waters of Lake Michigan. A must-read, captivating, vivid narrative.” - Clive Cussler, Internationally acclaimed action/adventure author and shipwreck hunter
“With careful scholarship, an eye for detail, and an obvious passion for her subject, Valerie van Heest has given us the definitive history of one of the most tragic incidents in the history of the Great Lakes.” - John Gurda, Historian and award-winning author of The Making of Milwaukee
“The storm-tossed waters of the Great Lakes are the graveyard of thousands of vessels and their crews. These dramatic losses have long fascinated historians, divers, archaeologists, and the public. But few have caught the public’s attention as did the sinking of the palace steamer the Lady Elgin in September 1860 – a disaster in which hundreds of men, women, and children lost their lives. In Lost on the Lady Elgin Valerie van Heest, long time shipwreck diver, maritime historian, and avocational archaeologist, captures this tragic loss in human terms by skillfully embedding the detailed testimony of survivors and witnesses in the broader story of the nineteenth-century maritime business, regional history, and the tumultuous political and social events on the eve of the Civil War. She further documents the modern discovery of the Lady Elgin wreck site and the ship’s unique role in defining the limitations of historic shipwreck preservation and protection on the Great Lakes. Van Heest’s riveting and authoritative tale of the fearful loss of the Lady Elgin, the human toll, and the ship’s controversial legal case and ultimate loss to the public stands as the definitive account of this historic and human maritime tragedy.” - Thomas E. Emerson, PhD, Director, Illinois Archaeological Survey
“Weaving first-hand statements of the survivors into a compelling and fascinating narrative, Valerie van Heest has produced the most comprehensive and accurate account of the Lady Elgin disaster yet written. Lost on the Lady Elgin shows that many of the urban myths surrounding the vessel’s sinking are just that, myths. I am gratified that my Lady Elgin passenger research contributed to this factual account.” - Carl Baehr, Genealogist and award-winning author of Milwaukee Streets: The Stories Behind Their Names
“At last! The complete story of the tragic Lady Elgin’s loss, discovery, and subsequent years of litigation that determined ownership. Valerie van Heest has written a compelling account of the Lady Elgin’s history, brought forth new information, and dispelled many of the rumors. The book is a great read for all of us who love and enjoy the history of our Great Lakes.” - David Trotter, Subject of the book, Shipwreck Hunter by Gerry Volgenau
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