Descendant of Lady Elgin victims dives to wreck site in
By MEG JONES
Posted: Aug. 9, 2008
All around him, as he fought to stay afloat in a turbulent
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
“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
“I would call it the Titanic of the
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
Many on board were Milwaukeeans, mostly from the city’s Third Ward Irish community. They had chartered the vessel for the trip to
The Lady Elgin will be featured in an exhibit of Titanic artifacts at the
“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
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
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
A personal connection
Sharon Cook, a member of the
The Cook family was returning to
Before she jumped into
Then the Lady Elgin was struck by the schooner
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