Up from the poor man’s cottage, forth from the mansion door,
Sweeping across the water and echoing along the shore,
Caught by the morning breezes, borne on the evening gale,
Came at the dawn of morning a sad and solemn wail.
Lost on the Lady Elgin, sleeping to wake no more,
Numbering in death five hundred that failed to reach the shore.
Sad was the wail of children, weeping for parents gone,
Children that slept at evening, orphans woke at morn;
Sisters for brothers weeping, husbands for missing wives,
These were the ties that were severed by those five hundred lives.
Staunch was the noble steamer, precious the freight she bore,
Gaily they loosed their cables a few short hours before,
Proudly she swept our harbor, joyfully rang the bell,
Little they thought ere morning it would peal so sad a knell.
The side-wheel passenger steamer Lady Elgin was one of many Great Lakes ships to sink in the 1800s. Several songs were inspired by those wrecks and Minnesota singer Mike Dean sang, in addition to this one, another well-travelled Great Lakes shipwreck ballad called “The Persian’s Crew.” The above transcription comes from a 1924 wax-cylinder recording of Dean’s singing and the words come from his songster The Flying Cloud.
Though “Lost on the Lady Elgin” might seem less “Irish” in character than many other songs in Dean’s repertoire, the actual 1860 tragedy that inspired Chicago printer Henry C. Work to write the song was a devastating event for the Irish community of Milwaukee that is still remembered there. The majority of the ship’s 393 passengers that September night were politically-active Irish-men and -women from Milwaukee’s “Third Ward” who had bought tickets on the Lady Elgin to go to Chicago and hear a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas (who was soon to lose to Republican Abraham Lincoln). In the most deadly Great Lakes shipwreck of the 19th century, between 279 and 350 perished when the lumber schooner Augusta collided with the Lady Elgin in bad weather. Enough of Milwaukee’s influential Irish died that night that some credit the event with transferring political power in Milwaukee from the Irish to the Germans.
Hintz, Martin. Irish Milwaukee. (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
“PS Lady Elgin – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed January 21, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS_Lady_Elgin.
Ratigan, William. Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1977.