Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Lady Elgin

I found this article on the Lady Elgin. It has a lot of good info on the wreck.

Descendant of Lady Elgin victims dives to wreck site in Illinois
Posted: Aug. 9, 2008

Winnetka, Ill. - Jacob Cook never forgot the death screams.

All around him, as he fought to stay afloat in a turbulent Lake Michigan, fellow passengers struggled to stay alive. His mother and sister were among them.

The Stockbridge, Wis., man, then 19, couldn’t see in the dark as the paddlewheel steamer he had boarded a short time earlier for the trip from Chicago to Milwaukee broke apart and slipped beneath the surface. Lightning flashed, illuminating the horrible scene. But he never saw his mother again, and the next time he saw his 24-year-old sister Elizabeth was when he claimed her body.

Last week, Sharon Cook thought of her relatives’ last moments as she swam down to the wreck of the Lady Elgin, which now lies in several pieces a few miles off the shore of this northern Chicago suburb.

“The notion of swimming over where my relatives might have walked is exciting,” said Sharon Cook, 56, who lives in Bay View.

All shipwrecks have stories — of those who lived, of those who died, of heroism, of blame.

But perhaps more than most of the hundreds of ships that lie in the underwater graveyard of the Great Lakes, the story of the Lady Elgin is particularly tragic.

“I would call it the Titanic of the Great Lakes,” said maritime historian Brendon Baillod.

Though it sank more than half a century before the Titanic, the Lady Elgin has been linked with the more famous ship because it, too, suffered a tremendous loss of life. There was no passenger manifest, so the exact number of victims is not known, though contemporary accounts estimate the number on board at 600 to 700. A mass grave in Winnetka became the resting place for 80 unclaimed victims.

Many on board were Milwaukeeans, mostly from the city’s Third Ward Irish community. They had chartered the vessel for the trip to Chicago on Sept. 7, 1860, to see presidential candidate Stephen Douglas just two months before he would lose to Abraham Lincoln.

The Lady Elgin will be featured in an exhibit of Titanic artifacts at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The Titanic show, one of six touring exhibits of artifacts retrieved from the doomed passenger liner, is scheduled to be on display at the Milwaukee museum Oct. 10 through May 25, 2009.

The Milwaukee Public Museum organized a scuba diving expedition to the Lady Elgin last week with photographers shooting pictures and video that will be part of the Titanic exhibit in Milwaukee. Most museums hosting the touring Titanic exhibit have featured a tie-in to their communities.

“We were brainstorming ideas because virtually every museum that’s had the Titanic had some local angle,” said Carter Lupton, vice president of museum programs, aboard a dive boat shortly after exploring the Lady Elgin.

Lupton said the Milwaukee Public Museum will also include Wisconsin connections to Titanic passengers and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Civil War politics

Lupton, Sharon Cook and others pulled on wet suits, fins, masks and air tanks to swim down to the bow section where two large iron anchors landed on the sandy bottom, entwined in front of long sections of the wooden hull. The windlass, which would have pulled up the anchors, ended up next to the planks, not far from a portion of the hull that looks like a skeleton with ribs sticking up in the green water.

The shipwreck was discovered in 1989 by Harry Zych, who was awarded ownership a decade later after a long legal battle.

Aside from the number of deaths, the Lady Elgin is significant in maritime history because of its role in Civil War politics.

“The interesting thing about the Lady Elgin is it happened in September 1860, when a lot of the precursor events to the Civil War were unfolding,” said Baillod, president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archaeological Association.

In 1860 many Wisconsinites were against slavery and Gov. Alexander Randall, a staunch abolitionist, talked actively about seceding from the Union unless the federal government outlawed slavery. Militia companies were asked whether they would support the state or the federal government if Wisconsin seceded. In Milwaukee, the Irish Union Guard sided with the Union.

That prompted state officials to disarm the Union Guard and revoke the commission of the unit’s commander. However, the Irish Union Guard refused to disband and instead chartered the Lady Elgin for a cruise to Chicago to raise money to re-arm, attend a Democratic rally and listen to Douglas’ speech. On the return trip to Milwaukee, the Irish group was joined by many other passengers who had been stranded when fog delayed other departures.

A personal connection

Sharon Cook, a member of the Milwaukee Public Museum board, suggested including the Lady Elgin in the exhibit, along with a dive to the wreck site. For her, the half-hour dive was personal. When the Lady Elgin died in the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 1860, shortly after being rammed by a schooner, her great-great-grandmother Jane Cook and great-aunt Elizabeth Cook died, too.

The Cook family was returning to Wisconsin from Canada after selling property and a business. The proceeds — almost $12,000 in gold — were to be used for down payments on farms near Stockbridge for four of Jane Cook’s sons. Her body and the gold sewn into her clothing were never found. Less than a year later, Jane Cook’s sons, including Jacob, were fighting on the Union side in the Civil War.

Before she jumped into Lake Michigan to descend to the Lady Elgin, Sharon Cook read letters written by Jacob Cook — who lived until Christmas Day 1917 — describing the awful night. In a letter dated Sept. 13, 1860, he described the happy crowd on board, which sang and danced to a brass band.

Then the Lady Elgin was struck by the schooner Augusta.

Jacob Cook and his family made their way to the deck.

“Mother and sister kissed me and said we would all be lost. I told them to have courage and we would all be saved. I tried to encourage them all I could. I got two planks and showed them how to use them. In ten minutes after we got on top of the boat, it went down. O! my God I shall never forget it! Wen it went down I jumped on some little boards. They were not able to hold me up. I went down. Wen I came up I got hold of something and got on to it.

“It was so dark and we could not see — only when there came a flash of lightning. I hollered as soon as I could for them to hold on until I could get to them, but I got no answers. Only people around me struggling to death in the waves. O! them death screams! Nobody knows what it was except those that were there. O! Lord deliver me from another such time. I seen no more of my dear mother and sister.”

Sharon Cook learned to scuba dive so she could see the wreck of the Lady Elgin, which now lies in several sections spread out across a mile in 50 feet of water.

“Where it really hit me was when I went to see ‘Titanic,’ and the last scene with them bobbing in the cold water,” said Cook, who is program director for Alliance for the Great Lakes. “I’m thinking that’s what my relatives would have been experiencing.”

Photo/Chris Winters, Copyright 2008
Harry Zych

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