A Rising Wind: The Lady Elgin Story Opens Today on 150th Anniversary of the Disaster

Sept 8 marks the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the side-wheel steamer The Lady Elgin. This is a devastating, yet fascinating chapter in Milwaukee history that has been largely forgotten by the general public. In our weekly Third Ward Haunted History Tour (May-Nov.), we remember the event and the Milwaukeeans lost in this tragedy, which spawned considerable regional folklore. This week a local play will also commemorate the disaster, which claimed the loved ones of 1 out of 3 residents of the Third Ward in 1860. Damned Theatre will present the premier of A Rising Wind, a play written by John Kishline and Edward Morgan about the shipwreck and surrounding events.

The play will be performed at the Best Place Tavern in the Pabst Brewery complex at 9th and Juneau, which recently opened as a bar. The room itself dates back to the 1850’s and thus provides a perfect setting for the tale. The play was originally commissioned by Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin, with support from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the Milwaukee Irish Fest Foundation. Morgan will direct, and the cast will feature Kishline, Georgina McKee, Jonathon Wainwright, Pete Woods and Sherrick Robinson. The play runs September 8, 9, 10, and 11th at 8 p.m. No reservations are required. Suggested donation is $10.

The Lady Elgin was a grand side-wheel steamer that sank on a stormy night off the coast of Illinois, September 8, 1860. Returning late from Chicago to Milwaukee and overloaded with more than 600 passengers, the Lady Elgin was accidentally rammed by the lumber schooner Augusta as she sped southwards under full sail. Only moderately damaged, the Augusta limped on to Chicago. But the Lady Elgin foundered some 10 miles from shore. Despite the resourcefulness of her crew and rescue attempts from citizens along the Illinois coast, hundreds drowned in the fierce undertow just 50 yards from shore. There were at least 300 deaths, but since the passenger manifest was incomplete, the full number of victims was never known. The tragedy claimed the greatest number of lives in the history of the Great Lakes.

The Lady Elgin tragedy is among Wisconsin’s most famous disasters. It is also a complex and fascinating story, complete with political wrangling over state’s rights and slavery, ethnic pride, the dramatic collision and gallant rescue attempts, public outpourings of grief and rage, and a highly publicized trial. The trip to Chicago, on the eve of Lincoln’s election, was predicated by the furor over slavery. At stake was Wisconsin’s possible abolitionist secession from the United States. Also at stake was the survival and integrity of the Union Guard, a local militia that was the pride and joy of Milwaukee’s Irish community. Because so many of the Lady Elgin’s passengers were civic leaders from the Irish Third Ward, the tragedy devastated the Irish community, and many believe it forever altered Milwaukee’s cultural identity. The Lady Elgin story is an essential piece of Wisconsin’s history – a fascinating drama framed by race, politics and social issues that still resonate today.

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~ by mkeghosts on September 8, 2010.

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