Great Lakes shipwreck killed 300: A Wisconsin Civil War story

Belle Montgomery

2nd Lieutenant
Oct 25, 2017

SHEBOYGAN - "All the pieces had to fall into place for this tragedy to happen."

That's how Paul Timm, an eighth-grade teacher at Random Lake Middle School, feels about the story of the Lady Elgin, a steam ship that sunk off the coast of Winnetka, Illinois, in 1860.

The passengers on the Lady Elgin had ties to several parts of Wisconsin, and its voyage had connections to controversies over the Fugitive Slave Act and the presidential campaign that would elect Abraham Lincoln. At a pivotal time in the state and country's history, tragedy struck. Many lived to tell the tale. But more did not.

Though it's not as famous as the Edmund Fitzgerald or the Christmas Tree Ship, the story of the shipwreck reads like a movie script, and Timm says it has it all: politics, religion, U.S. history. His interest in it started as he traced back family members he had on the Lady Elgin, and in time Timm became an expert on the wreck, writing a historical fiction book based on his research.
The Lady Elgin was a side-wheel steamship full of many Irish Democrats from the Third Ward in Milwaukee. It was returning to Milwaukee from Chicago when it sunk in the early hours of Sept. 8, 1860.

Timm's fascination with the tragedy began when he was helping his cousin take care of his aunt's estate after she died two years ago. It was then he discovered they had distant relatives who'd perished on the Lady Elgin.

After that Timm went on a mission, researching the tragedy, tracking down the names of people who survived and those who died in the wreck, and finding many graves of both.

The result is his book, "Lost Lady: The Lady Elgin Tragedy," by M. Paul Hollander, his pen name. Timm turned the story of the Lady Elgin into a work of historical fiction for young adults.

Wisconsin's abolitionist governor called for state's secession
The story begins six years before the steamship ever left the dock, Timm said. In 1854, Joshua Glover, a runaway slave, made it to Racine, where he was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, a new and controversial law which required the return of runaway slaves even if they were caught in a free state.

Sherman Booth, a well-known abolitionist in Wisconsin, led a mob to break Glover out of a Milwaukee jail. Glover then fled to Canada.

What people don't realize, Timm said, is that Wisconsin Gov. Alexander Randall, also an abolitionist,...