Monday, September 04, 2006


Wreck hunter seeks home for remnants of Great Lakes Titanic of its day

September 04, 2006

The steamship Lady Elgin was photographed on
the Chicago River before the disastrous collision
with schooner Augusta that sunk her.

CHICAGO - The rusty, almost metre-long steam whistle Harry Zych cradles in his arms screamed in alarm 146 years ago this month, as the stately USM Lady Elgin foundered and sank just north of Chicago in one of the 19th century's worst maritime disasters.

A schooner had just sliced into the paddle-wheeled luxury steamer, breaching her hull and spilling her more than 500 passengers into Lake Michigan. All but about 100 would die within hours in the cold, storm-driven waters.

While her demise on Sept. 8, 1860, once captured the attention of Americans in the 19th century in much the way the sinking of the Titanic would in the 20th, the Queen of the Lakes - as the Lady Elgin also was called - is now largely forgotten.

Not, however, by Zych, who poured more than $200,000 US and 20 years into locating her, fought the state of Illinois over her artifacts and now finds himself in another battle - to win over museums that aren't interested in a ship unless it is named Titanic.

"This ship was the Holy Grail for shipwreck hunters around the Great Lakes," says the grizzled, hard-talking Zych. "But there just isn't interest out there. . . . I've been turned down by one museum after another."

The 58-year-old Vietnam veteran located the Lady Elgin's long-lost wreckage in 1989, eight kilometres off Highland Park, in Chicago's northern suburbs. In 1999, he won a 10-year legal battle with the state over ownership of the wreck.

The sleek white Lady Elgin was one of the best known ships plying the Great Lakes, and whenever she pulled into ports crowds gathered to gawk, said Brendon Baillod, a Great Lakes maritime historian.

"Worldwide, she was definitely the Titanic of her day," Baillod said. Her sinking even inspired a song, "Lost on the Lady Elgin," which became popular during the Civil War.

Even so, Baillod said fascination with the Titanic has overshadowed the Lady Elgin and virtually all other shipwrecks since the ocean liner sank in 1912, killing more than 1,500 passengers and crew.

"Artifacts from most shipwrecks aren't attractive to museums anymore," Baillod said. "The Titanic's sexy because of the (1997) movie. Other shipwrecks are not."

Among Zych's artifacts are parts of musical instruments and an entire chandelier, under which passengers danced until the collision with a 40-metre, Chicago-bound schooner, the Augusta.

The Augusta rammed the 76-metre Lady Elgin's bow first, sheering off one of the larger ship's paddle wheels, then punching through her hull. The Lady Elgin flooded and sank within 30 minutes, while the Augusta stayed intact and sailed on to Chicago.

The whistle, which Zych says "sounded the death knell of the Lady Elgin," is among his most treasured artifacts. Among the several hundred others are china plates, swords, rifles and a spoon engraved with the words "Lady Elgin."

Zych said he's contacted about a dozen museums around Chicago about the artifacts. He blames their disinterest in part on what he calls a misplaced emphasis on flashy, entertainment-oriented exhibits.

"They don't want the hard artifacts anymore," he said. "They want the kind of display where kids can push buttons and then move on to the next entertainment."

Greg Borzo, an official at Chicago's Field Museum, said museums do face tough choices about what artifacts to exhibit. Less than one half of one per cent of the 23 million artifacts housed at the Field Museum is on public display, he said. Borzo was unaware of any contact between the museum and Zych.

"There's little room to put things on display," Borzo said. "You'd always have to bump something else out. And that all costs money."

But historian Baillod said museums could be especially wary of Lady Elgin artifacts because of legal action begun in 1989 in which Illinois accused Zych of stealing artifacts. A later lawsuit sought state ownership of the ship's wreckage.

The Illinois Supreme Court sided with Zych in 1999, saying he was the rightful owner of the wreck.

"There's still a lot of baggage associated with the Lady Elgin because of the vilification by the state of Harry during the lawsuit," Baillod said. "The vilification wasn't justified. But some museums would deny him entry because of it."

Worst of all, claims Zych, was that the lawsuit opened the way for unscrupulous divers to loot the wreck while a court order barred him from going near it. Among the items they may have hauled away are the Lady Elgin's bell and ship's wheel.

Dave Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois State Preservation Agency, defended the lawsuit, saying the state had to try to establish state ownership in the name of historical preservation.

"There's no doubt that the common perception out there was, 'Hey, finders, keepers,' " he said. "But the state had the bigger-picture issue in mind."

Zych says he never saw the Lady Elgin as a potential money maker and simply wants to preserve the memory of the ship. He hopes, for instance, to restore the whistle to sound at schools as he tells the Lady Elgin's story.

"The sunken treasure was the history of this wreck, and the history of the people on it," he said. "For me, it was always purely a labour of love."

He's considered launching a website featuring photographs of the artifacts. But he's still determined not to let them languish in safe deposit boxes, where most are currently kept.

"I'm still fighting the fight, but I'm running out of life span," he sighed. "I'd like to find a home for this stuff before I die."


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