On September 7, 1860 the Lady Elgin left Milwaukee, Wisconsin for Chicago, carrying members of Milwaukee's Union Guard to hear a campaign speech by Stephen Douglas. That night, on the return trip, the Lady Elgin was steaming through Lake Michigan in gale force winds when she was rammed by the schooner Augusta, which was trying to pull alongside the Lady Elgin in search of assistance in the rough water. The collision knocked out the lights on the Lady Elgin.
Concerned that she was damaged and believing the Lady Elgin had gotten safely away, the Augusta made for Chicago. Aboard the Lady Elgin, cattle and cargo were being thrown overboard to lighten the load and raise the gaping hole in the Lady Elgin's port side above water level. The lifeboat which was lowered drifted away before anyone could board it. Within twenty minutes, the Lady Elgin had broken apart.
When day broke, between 350 and 500 passengers and crew were floating in the water, holding on to anything they could. Around 380 people are believed to have died in the sinking.