“Lost on the Lady Elgin”


"Up from the poor man's cottage, forth from the mansion's door ... Cometh a voice of mourning, a sad and solemn wail, Lost on the Lady Elgin... Numbered in that three hundred Who failed to reach the shore." The many mourners are briefly mentioned


Cohen, Pound, and McNeil credit this to Henry Clay Work, though the disaster came before his songwriting career took off. Other sources do not seem aware of this attribution. I have not seen the sheet music.

There are many sources describing the tragedy of the _Lady Elgin_. Those I consulted are

Mark Bourrie, _Many a Midnight Ship_, University of Michgan Press, 2005, pp. 91-106; William Ratigan, _Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals_, revised edition, Eerdmans, 1977, pp. 43-49; Michael J. Varhola, _Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures: Great Lakes_, Globe Pequot Press, 2007 [listed as copyright 2008, but I bought my copy in November 2007], pp. 57-62; Mark L. Thompson, _Graveyards of the Lakes_, Wayne State University Press, 2000, pp. 146-155. Of these, Thompson is the most detailed and best footnoted; Varhola is the shortest and doesn't bother with sources.

Varhola, p. 58, describe the ship as follows: "[The] _Lady Elgin_ [was] a double-decked wooden side-wheel steamer owned by Gordon S. Hubbard & Co. that had been built nine years earlier in Buffalo, New York.... One of the largest steamers on the Great Lakes, the luxurious _Lady Elgin_ was an impressive 252 feet long, nearly 34 feet wide, and had a draft of just over 14 feet, and her 54-inch-cylinder, 11-foot-stroke steam engine powered a pair of 32-foot paddle wheels. Operated by a crew of forty-three, she was equipped to carry two hundred passengers in her cabins, another hundred on her decks, and up to eight hundred tons of freight in her holds."

Thompson, p. 146, says that she was originally built for Canada's Grand Trunk Railway, and intended to sail from Buffalo to Chicago (entirely under steam, if the drawing on p. 149 of Thompson is accurate). Although designed for passengers, she also carried a lot of freight for the Grand Trunk (Bourrie,p. 92). In 1856, when the Grand Trunk between Toronto and Sarnia was completed, she shifted to a Chicago-to-Lake-Superior route. She was successful enough that she came to be called "The Queen of the Lakes." But Bourrie, pp. 92-93, also notes that she had an amazing series of groundings and other misadventures in this period, one of which nearly caused her to be written off.

Apparently the passengers who booked the _Lady Elgin_ were mostly Irish, from Wisconsin and Illinois. Their story was peculiar. Thompson, p. 147, explains that the governor of Wisconsin at the time was threatening to take the state out of the Union if the federal government didn't do something about slavery. One of the state's militia units was an Irish outfit commanded by Garrett Barry. Barry declared that he would stick with the Union no matter what Wisconsin did, and the Wisconin government ordered his unit demobilized (Bourrie, p. 94).

The unit wanted to stick together. So they chartered a trip from Milwaukee to Chicago on the _Lady Elgin_ to raise money to purchase new weapons. The company and the paying passengers would go to Chicago on September 7, 1860, hold a parade, and come back.

The ship's captain was Jack Wilson, who was distinguished enough that he had been allowed to lead the first ship ever to travel the Soo Canal (between Lake Superior and the lower great lakes) in 1855 (Ratigan, p. 43). He apparently did not like the weather on the night of the return voyage (Thompson, p. 148). But he was finally convinced to put out from the shore.

Then, on the night of September 8, the storm struck,

It was a bad night for viibility. And the schooner _Augusta_, 129 feet long, carrying pine logs, had no running lights. Her lookout allegedly saw the _Lady Elgin_ twenty minutes before the collision, but she did not change course (Ratigan, pp. 44-45; Thompson, p. 148, explains this on the basis that the mate on watch could not tell the _Lady Elgin's_ course and had been too busy taking in sail to worry about his own; Bourrie, p. 96, explains it as the result of an illegal maneuver which went wrong). The smaller ship's bow went right into the _Lady Elgin's_. side.

The high waves parted the two ships quickly (Thompson, p. 150), and although the _Augusta_ remained seaworthy, she had sustained enough damage that her captain headed for port without making any attempt at rescuing the victims on the _Lady Elgin_. (He would later claim that he thought he had struck only a glancing blow; damage to his own ship was slight -- Thompson, p. 150.) The _Lady Elgin_ herself tried to head for shore, but she was nine miles off the coast, with one of her paddlwheels wrecked (Bourrie, p. 96), and it was soon clear that she would sink before she could reach the land, despite frantic attempts to lighten her, shift her cargo,and patch the hole (Bourrie,p. 98).

And, according to Thompson, p. 149, she had only four lifeboats -- and those lacked oars! (Thompson, p. 151).

Captain Wilson managed to get most of the passengers onto improvised rafts, but in the storm, many of them broke up and most of the passengers, including Wilson, were lost. Garrett was also killed (Bourrie, p. 106). To make matters worse, the shores of the Lake were very steep here, creating a strong undertow. Passengers would often find themselves very close to shore, only to be sucked back into the water (Bourrie, p. 100).

Reportedly the ship's upper works exploded as she went down -- probably due to compressed air rather than a boiler explosion. The boat sank within about twenty minutes of being hit.

There was one noteworthy deed of heroism: A university student named Edward Spencer swam out more than a dozen times to save fifteen or more passengers -- about a sixth of the total (Ratigan, pp. 47-48; Bourrie, p. 101, says that the deed crippled him for life). Others on the shore, though, robbed the dead bodies (Thompson, p. 153)

No knows how exactly how many were aboard, or how high the casualties were. According to Hudson and Nicholls, _Tragedy on the High Seas_, the collision killed 287 of 385 passengers on the _Lady Elgin_. Ratigan says that 297 were killed. As of the time he wrote, it was the second-highest loss of life from a great lakes disaster. Thompson, p. 153, notes that estimates of the number of survivors range from 98 to 155, and the casualties from 279 to 350. Varhola, p. 59, has the highest number of all, claiming that between 600 and 700 people were on board. He says that 160 survived, and 200 bodies washed ashore. Bourrie, p. 100, gives similar numbers.

The _Augusta_ became so infamous that she had to be renamed and transferred from service on the lakes to work on the Atlantic (Ratigan, pp. 48-49).

The one good thing to come out of the disaster was that an inquiry was held (Thompson, pp. 153-154), which assigned portions of the blame to both ships (e.g. the _Lady Elgin_ had no watertight compartments, and did not yield to the smaller ship, while the mate of the _Augusta_ was too slow to inform his captain of the other ship's presence), but the primary blame was with the existing navigation laws. The _Lady Elgin_ disaster was largely responsible for the 1864 passage of America's first navigation law (Thompson, pp. 154-155) - RBW

Historical references

  • 1860 - The Lady Elgin, an excursion boat on Lake Michigan, collides with a steamer and sinks

Cross references

  • cf. "The Titanic (IV - 'Lost on the Great Titanic')" (tune)


  1. Randolph 692, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 453-455, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 692)
  3. LPound-ABS, 60, pp. 134-135, "The Lady Elgin" (1 text)
  4. BrownII 214, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text)
  5. Dean, pp. 61-62, "Lost on the Lady Elgin" (1 text)
  6. cf. Gardner/Chickering, p. 480, "Lady Elgin" (source notes only)
  8. Roud #3688
  9. BI, R692


Author: Henry Clay Work?
Earliest date: 1861 (copyright by H. M. Higgins)
Found in: US(MW,SE,So)