12th Street beach wreck, year unknown
Just south of the Adler Planetarium, an unidentified shipwreck is embedded in the sand. Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago president John Bell says that it’s probably the closest wreck to shore in the area; you can actually walk to it. Shoreline erosion caused by the construction of the planetarium in 1925 exposed the hull of the schooner, which is an estimated 140 feet long. The stern end of the ship has been paved over, but Bell says that “on a good day, you can see the ribs.”
Lady Elgin, 1860
The deadliest shipwreck in the Great Lakes until the Eastland disaster—and still the worst open-water disaster on Lake Michigan—was the sinking of this 252-foot passenger steamer. In an early-morning storm a schooner rammed the side of the larger steamship at full speed, ripping a hole it in. The schooner suffered some damage but made it back to Chicago, while the Lady Elgin quickly broke in half and sank. Many of the passengers floated toward the coastline on pieces of the deck, only to be drowned in the surf near shore. Of the nearly 400 passengers aboard, more than 300 died.
The remains of the ship were discovered in 1989 by shipwreck hunter Harry Zych, who immediately claimed ownership of them. Nearly 20 years of searching was followed by a decade of litigation, and though shipwrecks are usually the property of the state, Zych eventually won the legal battle. He’s found artifacts including pre-Civil War muskets and swords, china plates and spoons engraved with the words “Lady Elgin,” a three-foot-long steam whistle, and a chandelier.
Wings of the Wind, 1866
This 142-foot schooner was on its way to Chicago, carrying 240 tons of coal, when in the predawn darkness of May 12 the H.P. Baldwin—a much larger sailing ship—struck it between the bow and the stern, flooding the hold. The crew abandoned ship and was picked up by the Baldwin. An attempt later that year to raise the ship failed, but the coal cargo was recovered. The ship was discovered in 1987 and within a few weeks had been stripped of all its hardware and loose objects. It’s now a popular dive site.
L.R. Doty, 1898
A 291-foot wooden steamship, the L.R. Doty was carrying 107,000 bushels of corn to Ontario when a violent storm kicked up, breaking the line between the ship and a schooner she was pulling and ultimately sinking the larger ship. All 17 people on board died, as well as the ship’s two cats, Dewey and Watson. The wreck was discovered just three years ago, upright in 300 feet of water with corn still in its hold. Twenty years earlier a fisherman had noticed a large obstruction on the bottom of the lake snagging his nets, but diving technology wasn’t as advanced then as it is now; as Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association president Brendan Baillod told NPR after the discovery, “at that time it might as well have been on the moon.” Baillod, who led the search for the shipwreck after diving technology improved, believes that the bodies of the people who died on the ship are still inside, preserved by the cold and intact due to lack of predators.
The Eastland disaster, 1915
Just after unmooring from its dock downtown in the Chicago River on the morning of July 24, the Eastland listed to one side and then tipped over. The luxury passenger steamer came to rest on the lake bottom only a few feet from dock in just 20 feet of water, but passengers trapped inside were crushed by falling furniture or drowned. Of the more than 2,500 people aboard, 844 were killed. Temporary morgues were set up in nearby buildings (including the 2nd Regiment Armory, which is now the site of Harpo Studios) as bodies were retrieved from the ship, and city workers set up a net across the river to prevent corpses from washing out into the lake. After the Eastland was raised a month later she was converted to a Navy gunboat and renamed the Wilmette.