Lake County farmer among the passengers on the Titanic
The 100th anniversary this weekend of the disastrous maiden voyage of the "unsinkable" Titanic will be commemorated in a variety of ways as a historical event that has gripped the public fascination like few others.
It also has special significance for one Lake County family, although there isn't likely to be fanfare or debate among them.
"We just really haven't talked about it. I wasn't aware until recently there was a 100th anniversary," said Ruth Young, who lives in a pre-Civil War-era home in the historical area of Old Mill Creek known as Millburn.
"It's like one of those family tales that gets passed from generation to generation," added Young, whose great-grandfather, William James Elsbury, was a passenger on the ill-fated ship when it struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, in the icy North Atlantic.
Elsbury, a farmer who came to the U.S. as a teenager, was among more than 1,500 — and one of two from Lake County — who died when the luxury ship sank. The other, Waukegan resident Alfred Gustafson, was thought to be a factory worker but little else is known, according to Ty Rohrer, director of the Waukegan History Museum.
Rohrer will focus on the local impact of the Titanic disaster in programs at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Jane Addams Center at Bowen Park, 2000 Belvidere St., Waukegan, and at 7 p.m. Monday at the Cook Park Library, 413 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville.
In an era when most communications came via telegrams and letters, there was much uncertainty after the initial notice the Titanic was in trouble.
"Many of them were immigrants themselves and had family members who were coming to join them from there," Rorher said of Waukegan residents. "It was an anxious time."
That also was true for the Elsbury family.
Elsbury farmed land in Warren Township, north of Grand Avenue and west of Hunt Club Road. In late 1911, he returned to England to settle his father's estate.
Apparently having concluded his business and missing friends and family, Elsbury decided to come home — on the Titanic.
"He had a round-trip ticket when he left here," Young said.
Why he chose the Titanic is one of many details about Elsbury's trip that remain unclear. Why a farmer described in accounts of the day as well-to-do would travel in third class was another. And how much money did he have with him when the ship sank?
Friends believed he traveled in third class because he "did not like to mix with the blue blood aristocracy" he would find in first and second class, according to a newspaper account at the time.
"It wasn't as bad as it sounds," Young said. "It wasn't where they kept the cows and stuff." Rohrer said a third-class ticket cost the equivalent of $900 today.
Gary Elsbury, a Gurnee resident and great-grandson, thinks it was because he had $6,000 to $8,000 in gold in his possession as his slice of the estate.
"He didn't want anybody to know he had that kind of money on him, so he traveled third class," he theorized.
Whatever the reason, the news Titanic had sunk shook his wife, Eliza, and four children. His name appeared on a third-class passenger list four days later, but she held out hope he had been saved, relatives said.
In a letter to the First National Bank published at the time, Elsbury said he would leave England on April 10 and expected to be in New York on April 16.
Adding to the angst was Elsbury's word to his wife weeks before he left that he intended to bring with him a niece from England. But for whatever reason that did not happen and he sailed alone.
Relatives say there is a marker for Elsbury next to Eliza's in Warren Cemetery, but there is no mention of the Titanic.
Many of Elsbury's descendants live in the area and are well aware of his place in history, but they don't dwell on it. There is no family archive or repository of historical items relating to the disaster or the farmer who met his end on the boat.
What does exist is scattered, and much of the detail regarding Elsbury's trip has been gleaned from old news accounts or from distant family stories that may not be completely accurate.
"Even my grandmother, she would come every year and go through her things in the attic. But she never mentioned it," said Clare Leicht, who will turn 88 next week.
One of Elsbury's four remaining grandchildren, Leicht says she can't remember having ever seen a photograph of her grandparents as a couple.
The family farm eventually was sold and was developed as the Bridlewood subdivision, which includes an Elsbury Street at the request of Gary Elsbury.
He said he finds it "unusual and disappointing" there aren't more family photos available.
"I've collected whatever I could, newspaper articles, clippings," he said. When asked, he is happy to relay what he knows.
"I tell them that's our claim to fame," he said.
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