Friday, July 24, 2015

100th Anniversary of the SS Eastland Disaster

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.

The Picnic Morning

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. 

Countdown to Disaster

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.

At 6:40, passengers began boarding the ship. By 6:41, the ship began to list to starboard (towards the wharf), but this was not unusual due to a large concentration of boarding passengers who had not yet dispersed throughout the ship and were lingering on the starboard side. As the list began to hinder the continuation of loading, the Eastland's Chief Engineer, Joseph Erickson, ordered the port ballast tanks to be filled enough to help steady the ship. By 6:51, the ship evened out.

At 6:53, the ship began to list again, this time to port. When the list reached 10 degrees, Erickson ordered the starboard ballast tanks to be partially filled. The list was straightened temporarily and passengers continued to load at an approximate rate of 60 per minute. By 7:10, the tickets counted had reached the Eastland’s registered capacity of 2500. At this time, the ship began to once again list to port. The port ballast tanks were emptied, but the port list increased to approximately 15 degrees by 7:16. 

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.

While this was occurring, the gangplank was closed and passengers on the ship had distributed throughout the decks and cabins. Eyewitnesses on the Clark Street Bridge stated that the decks of the ship were packed. By 7:23, the list had become so severe that the crew directed passengers, many of whom were on the ship's upper decks, to move to the starboard side. However, by 7:27, the list had reached an angle of 25 to 30 degrees. More water began to flow into the ship from the port side, as chairs, picnic baskets, bottles, and all sorts of items began to slide across the decks.

At 7:28, the list had reached 45 degrees. At this point, many of the crew began to realize the seriousness of the situation. Passengers were still securing bench seating for their families and settling in for the trip when the furnishings, the piano, dishes, iceboxes, the lemonade stand and appliances fell over with loud crashes and slid across the decks and cabins. The passengers began to panic. Many began to crawl out of gangways or other openings on the starboard side as the Eastland gently continued to list to port until it finally settled on its port side at 7:30.

Some passengers who had pulled themselves to safety were fortunate to find themselves standing on the starboard hull of the Eastland. Others who were not so lucky were trying to stay afloat in the currents of the river. My grandmother found herself in the river. Others were trapped within cabins or under the Eastland. One eyewitness described the scene:

"I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything that they could reach--at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all."

The Rescue

Small boats in the area and people on the wharf began helping with rescue operations immediately. Some onlookers dove into the river or jumped onto the boat to help those who were struggling while others threw wooden planks and crates into the water to help people stay afloat. The crews of other ships were pulling people out of the water, dead and alive.

My grandfather, Herman Krause, was fortunate to be wearing the Uncle Sam costume, and as rescuers rowed into the mass of humanity he heard one cry out ‘Grab Uncle Sam!’ and he was pulled to safety. My grandmother, Elsa Neumann, was being pulled down by her ankles under the water from someone beneath her, when a rescuer grabbed her long hair that was still visible on the surface and pulled her to safety. The person beneath her never surfaced, and had pulled her high-laced boots off and drowned.

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.

Workers used cutting torches to cut holes in the side of the hull to pull out survivors as well as dead. The screams coming from those inside the ship were disturbing the onlookers. By the time the holes were cut in the hull, many who had been alive at the time the ship rolled had since drowned. My grandmother’s sister, Hattie Neumann, had been in a starboard cabin, and was pulled to safety through a porthole onto the side of the ship. A great effort was expended to remove the dead from inside the ship as divers had to go underwater within the hull to retrieve bodies.

The Morgues

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.

The Funerals

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.

Investigations Begin

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.

La Follette introduced and carried through the bill against bitter odds, believing that this, one of his most famous achievements, would increase the safety of passengers while also improving the working conditions for sailors once the law went into effect in November 1915. The St. Joseph & Chicago Steamship Company, owners of the Eastland, decided to outfit their ship with six additional life rafts and 3 additional lifeboats in June 1915 while the ship was in for other repairs. Since the law was not yet in effect, the Eastland was granted a license to carry 2,500 passengers, even though the Seaman's Act would have restricted the Eastland to about 1,200 passengers. The Eastland’s capsizing stressed the importance of a competent, technically skilled Steamship Inspection Service. But the fate of the American shipping industry was already sealed.

Immediately following the disaster, three separate investigations began or were planned: Cook County Coroner Hoffman's Inquiry, Commerce Secretary Redfield's Hearing and the Chicago City Council Inquiry. On July 31 with his typical iron-fist policies, Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis issued an injunction for those subpoenaed to appear and testify before the federal grand jury from testifying in any other hearing. This halted the other investigations and inquiries, giving Landis total control. The effect of this order was to limit the historical documentation of the disaster. The federal grand jury never published its hearings, and they appear not to have survived. These grand jury transcripts were also misplaced or not used during the criminal trial. The grand jury transcripts would have provided the only detailed testimony by witnesses within weeks of the disaster.

On September 29, 1915, Judge Landis issued a federal bench warrant for the arrest of owner/operators George Arnold and William Hull, Steamship Inspectors Robert Reid and J.C. Eckliff, Captain Pedersen and Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson on the charge of conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship. Because the alleged conspiracy took place in Michigan, the case was assigned to Judge Clarence W. Sessions of the District Court at Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Many questions shrouded the Eastland: Why was the ship's capacity changed from 2000 to 2500? How did such a top-heavy ship ever pass maritime inspections? Why were the ballast tanks utilized so ineffectively? And why were there so many problems with the valves used to operate the ballast tanks? 

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.

During the Eastland criminal trial, Darrow defended Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson. While it is unfair to levy the full responsibility for the disaster on Erickson's shoulders, certainly some level of negligence occurred, and Darrow's skills were used to secure a certain justice. It was Erickson, after all, that was the last crewman below decks that shutdown the boilers to prevent an explosion that would have cost the lives of everyone. He was never acknowledged for this selfless act of heroism in a capsizing vessel. In the end, all criminal and civil cases regarding the Eastland ended in acquittals, hung juries or dismissals. The last civil case ended in 1935.

But why did the Eastland capsize?

The Eastland was never a steady ship from the beginning. She was designed as a cargo ship with passenger amenities to deliver fresh fruit from western Michigan to Chicago. Within the first year, the Eastland was primarily carrying passengers. In June of 1915, a portion of the deck in the bar of the Eastland was repaired. To prevent further rot, the decking was replaced with concrete. The additional lifeboats were added at the same time to the upper deck. All this added weight was above the center of gravity of the ship (or its metacentric height). With the addition of the new lifeboats under current laws, an additional 500 passenger quota was allowed. No amount of ballast tank manipulation could have corrected the negative metacentric height of the ship to avert the tragedy. It was the perfect storm.

Rebirth of the Eastland

In 1915, the Naval Reserve purchased the Eastland and converted it into a training ship at Great Lakes Naval Academy and was officially renamed and launched on September 25, 1918 as the USS Wilmette (IX-29). The USS Wilmette was outfitted with 4-inch guns, and was one of the primary training vessels for the Naval Academy. Many of the sailors in World War II would train on the Wilmette, including those on duty at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

On June 7th, 1921, the USS Wilmette steamed from her berth at the end of Randolph Street in Chicago and headed out onto Lake Michigan. She was be tasked with the sinking of a captured German submarine, the U-Boat UC-97; a spoil of war from WWI that had spent its days after the war on a Liberty Bond tour of the Great Lakes. Per the Treaty of Versailles, the submarine had to be destroyed no later than June 30, 1921. The UC-97 was towed out into Lake Michigan by the USS Hawk, with the Wilmette present as her final executioner. Aboard the Wilmette was Gunner's Mate J.O. Sabin, who fired the first American shell in World War I, and Gunner's Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the Great War. Out of the thirteen shells fired, ten found their mark and in ten minutes the UC-97 took her last, long dive.

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.

To read more about the Eastland Disaster, please visit

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