The Lady Elgin was known as the “Queen of the Lakes” because of her speed, reliability and gracious appointments. For nine years she sailed the lakes in safety, usually operating out of Chicago. The collision between the Lady Elgin and the lumber schooner Augusta on September 8, 1860 was one of the worst disasters in Chicago history.
The helmsman of both the Lady Elgin and the schooner failed to adjust their course enough to avoid the accident, in part due to heavy seas that reduced each vessel’s maneuverability. After the ships struck, they drifted apart. The crew of Augusta thought they had done little damage to the larger steamship and tried to nurse their damaged ship into Chicago. As it turned out, they were only slightly damaged while the Lady Elgin had ruptured below the waterline.
Captain Jack Wilson, a veteran mariner, turned the rapidly sinking steamer toward the Illinois shore. He had hesitated to embark that night due to the prospect of a storm but yielded his better judgment to pressure from passengers anxious to get home.
Between 350 and 380 passengers died when the Lady Elgin sunk several miles from shore. The panicked passengers tried to save themselves by clinging to pieces of the wreckage. The lifeboats had been swept away only partially full and the life preservers were stored in the flooded holds.
The storm drove the survivors toward the Evanston shore. As they neared the land, breakers claimed many lives, dashing them against rocks amid heavy surf, just a few feet from safety. Captain Wilson died there. After bringing several passengers through the surf, he was smashed against a rock.