This is a special guest post by USS Eastland historian and founder of the Eastland Memorial Society, Karl Sup, on this the 100th anniversary of the greatest ship disaster in America.
Today, we honor the men, women and children who perished, survived and rescued others.
One hundred years ago on Saturday, July 24, 1915, the passenger ship Eastland was docked in downtown Chicago on the Chicago River preparing to depart for a Lake Michigan cruise to Michigan City, Indiana and the Western Electric employee picnic. Soon after 2,500-plus passengers boarded the ship, it began to list; first to starboard, then to port while still moored to the wharf. The Eastland rolled onto its port side, spilling passengers into the river and trapping others underwater in the interior cabins, mostly women and children. The disaster claimed 844 lives. This tragedy remains relatively obscure in American history, even though it resulted in the largest death toll of any Great Lakes disaster.
At that time, there was a thriving passenger steamship business on the Great Lakes. Automobiles were still in their infancy, and good roads between cities were few and far between. Industrial cities like Chicago were blackened by soot and ash. The Western Electric picnic had been held in Michigan City in 1914 and was lauded as a fine day in the clean air of the country.
Saturday, July 24, 1915 was the day of the annual company picnic for the employees of the Western Electric Company. Seven thousand tickets were distributed to company workers and their families living in the Chicago area. The tickets were seventy-five cents each, youth at half-fare, and children were to be admitted at no cost. The cruise would take passengers to Washington Park in Michigan City, Indiana with a parade to start the events of the picnic. My grandfather was to be Uncle Sam in that parade.
That morning, the Eastland was moored from its starboard side to the wharf on the south side of the Chicago River, just west of the Clark Street Bridge. She was preparing for the first departure at 7:30am. The Theodore Roosevelt, the Petoskey, the Maywood, the Racine, and the Rochester were other ships chartered for the picnic and moored near the Eastland on the river. Specific ship assignments had not been made for the employees. Because the Eastland and the Theodore Roosevelt were the newest and most elegant ships, the majority of Western Electric employees wanted to board these ships. Since these two ships were scheduled as the first to depart, there was little doubt that both would be filled to their capacities. The Theodore Roosevelt would follow the Eastland out at 8:00am. She would be followed by the Maywood at 8:30, the Petoskey at 9:00, the Racine at 10:00 and finally the Rochester at 2:30pm.
At 6:30am, preparations began for loading. The river was fairly calm. There was no wind and the skies were partly cloudy. By this time, 5,000 people had already arrived and were waiting to board, so when the gangplanks were lowered, people hurried on board so that they would not be denied the chance to ride the Eastland. The majority of those preparing to board the ships were the families of employees of Western Electric. Because the company picnic was an important social event, a great many of the employees in attendance were young, single adults in their late teens or early 20's.
Within the next few minutes, the ship straightened again, but the port list resumed at 7:20 to the extent where water began to come into the ship through the gangway openings on the port side. Even so, no great panic occurred among the passengers. In fact, some began to make fun of the manner in which the ship was swaying and leaning.
By 8 a.m., all survivors had been pulled out of the river. Ashes from the fireboxes of nearby tugboats were spread over the starboard hull of the Eastland so rescue workers would not slip on the wet and slick surface as they carried the dead and injured from the side of the Eastland.
A major problem arose immediately following the disaster. A vast amount of corpses needed to be laid out for orderly identification. Since the Western Electric employees were not assigned to specific ships, no passenger lists existed and none were written as the ship was boarded. Many smaller morgues were established at nearby buildings, hospitals, the Reid-Murdock building, and even the Theodore Roosevelt. By Saturday afternoon, the Second Regiment Armory on Washington Boulevard had been established as the central morgue. Those bodies not already identified were transported there by car and wagon. The victims were set together in rows and around midnight on the 24th, those who believed their relatives might have perished were admitted to begin identifying. Identification took many days, since several entire families were wiped out in the disaster and no one was left in the immediate area to assist in their identification.
As the dead were identified; family members began arrangements for final dedication of their loved ones. Cemeteries and mortuaries were overrun with business. Temporary grave-diggers were hired and loaned delivery trucks from Marshall Fields & Company became make-shift hearses to carry the dead.
Churches were overflowing to capacity. St. Mary's of Czestochowa Catholic Church in Cicero performed one funeral ceremony for 29 victims. The majority of victims were of German descent, followed very closely by those of Czech or Bohemian ancestry. Twenty-two entire families perished, and there were at least 139 victims interred at Bohemian National Cemetery. Among those was the entire Sindelar family. The total dead rose to 844 men, women and children. Eight hundred and forty one were passengers, two were from the Eastland's crew, and one was a crew member of the Petoskey who died in the rescue effort.
Although the Titanic had a higher death toll of 1,523, the Titanic actually had a lower death toll of passengers than the Eastland. Crew deaths on the Titanic totaled 694 versus 829 passengers. A public outcry arose immediately for answers.
So what caused the Eastland disaster? A number of factors weighed in, among those were legislation and regulations that required the addition of lifeboats to all ships in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic. Hearings were held and chaired by Senator Robert La Follette.
During the hearings, the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company's president, A.A. Schantz, testified that the addition of more life-saving equipment to shallow draft Great Lakes vessels would create dangerous, top-heavy conditions and unnecessary passenger risk. But still, after a two-year battle in Congress, the bill was signed by President Wilson on March 4, 1915.
There was also a rumor that the ship passengers had not been carefully counted as they boarded the ship, and that the ship may have been filled beyond its capacity.
Probably the most celebrated American lawyer of the 20th century, Clarence Darrow worked as defense counsel in many widely publicized trials. He was notable as a defender of the underdog and civil rights.
But why did the Eastland capsize?
Rebirth of the Eastland
However, this was not the last distinguished act of this fateful ship.
In August 1943, the Wilmette took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy, James F. Byrnes, and Harry Hopkins, and others (see map) on a ten day cruise of McGregor and Whitefish Bays to plot war strategies. The USS Wilmette was chosen for this secret mission because of her weaponry, comparatively plush cabins, ironically part of the structure remaining from the Eastland.
In late 1946, the USS Wilmette was offered up for sale, as scrap, by the US Government. Potential buyers ranged her hull, tapping her plates and gauging her ribs in estimating the yield in tons of good melting stock. On October 31, 1946, the successful bidder, Hyman Michaels Company, judged her to be worth $2500 and in due time the workers attacked her with their cutting torches on the South Branch of the Chicago River. Pound by pound and ton by ton they reduced her to fragments. On March 28, 1947, nearly forty-four years after she had made her celebrated debut on May 6, 1903 in the cool waters of the Black River at Port Huron, Michigan, the Eastland was no more.