It was a drizzling, cool morning in Chicago. A wispy haze, not quite a fog, waited for the July sun to burn it off and reveal the blue, calm waters of Lake Michigan ahead. Yet there was an air of almost giddy festivity as thousands came down to the slips along the Chicago River where a procession of excursion steamers were tied up and awaiting their arrival. They came in their best summer clothes, whole families of them—Mothers in shirt waists, long flowing skirts, gleaming new shoes buttoned to a fare-thee-well over the ankles, and fine big hats almost as elegant as the grand dames who paraded down Michigan Avenue; hulking Fathers in too-tight suits and celluloid collars that bit into their thick necks, new straw skimmers clinging to their heads; daughters in pinafores with shiny ribbons in their cascading ringlets, fine young lads in their knickers already eyeing opportunities for mischief. They gaily babbled in half a dozen languages—English, of course, but Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, too—as they filed up the gangplanks onto the ships.
It was a big day in all of their lives. They were off on a rare holiday, a single day out of a year of drabness and drudgery at the mammoth Western Electric Hawthorne complex in Cicero, just across the way from Chicago where most of the nation’s telephone and telegraph equipment was manufactured. They would sail over the cool waters of the Lake that morning and dock at Michigan City, Indiana for a picnic and a day on the beaches with games and competitions, dances in pavilions, and plenty of cold beer for the grown-ups and ice cream for the kids for relief from the heat. And that evening they would sail back, approaching Chicago in the gloaming as the city’s dazzling lights out shown the emerging stars. They would clamor off the ships, sunburned and exhausted, carrying their children. They would climb on board street cars or the L and make their way back to their cold water flats and rooming houses. Or that was the plan.
The SS Eastland was the largest and finest of the excursion ships lined up that day. Its enticing brochure called her the Speed Queen of the Great Lakes. She had been built in 1902 by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan. The 1,961 ton ship was 265 feet long, 28 ft. wide at the beam, and 19 ft. 6 inches when loaded. She had gone through four owners, but had successfully plied the waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie for 13 years.
|The Eastland on a better day sails from her Chicago River dock under the State Street Bridge on the way to the open waters of Lake Michigan in a vintage 1908 postcard.|
But she was known to be top heavy at least three times she had listed with a full passenger load to the point of beginning to take water, but each time the crew had managed to right her. Officials did reduce her passenger capacity as a precaution. The current owner and operator, the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company of St. Joseph, Michigan, was aware of the problem but believed that the crew had been adequately trained to deal with listing by adjusting ballast.
That early morning of Saturday, July 24, 1915 the Eastland was tied up in the river between Clark and LaSalle Streets. More than 7000 tickets had been purchased for the excursion and by about 7:10 am the ship had reached its official capacity 2,752 passengers. Many headed below to get out of the drizzle. Many others excitedly jammed the open upper decks, hoping to watch the cast off and view the short trip down the river to the lake.
A lot of those crowed the port side, away from the dock for a better view of the river. Shortly, the ship began to list and the crew began shifting ballast. Perhaps they were not fast enough, perhaps the tipping point was reached before the bilge pumps could do their work. Original reports had it that there was a sudden rush of passengers to the port side after 7:25. In fact what probably happened was that the list had become so pronounced that the passengers slipped toward the port rail. At 7:20 the ship lurched softly and then began a slow roll until it was lying on its side and rapidly taking water below. It quickly sank to the muddy bottom of the river, a depth of only 20 feet. Half the ship lay exposed above water on its side.
There were many witnesses, including reporters from the newspapers, several of which had offices nearby. Jack Woodford, a reporter for the Hearst owned Chicago Examiner, recalled in his autobiography:
…And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.
With hundreds of witnesses and in the heart of a busy city, help was on hand almost immediately. The nearby ship Kenosha immediately pulled alongside and began to take on scores of passengers who scrambled from the decks to the side of the ship. Lines were thrown to victims in the water from the ship and from shore.
|Survivors and rescuers mingle on the side of the ship minutes after it rolled.|
Police and Firefighters arrived on the scene in minutes and began frantic rescue efforts aided by many civilian volunteers. They were supplemented by members of the Fire Insurance Patrol, coast guard, hard-hat divers, and heavy equipment operators. Hundreds were rescued. But before an hour was up official realized that it was too late for many, although a very few were rescued from air pockets on board when holes were cut in the hull.
Many of the dead were trapped below when the ship rolled and rapidly took water. Some were crushed as heavy furnishing, appointments, and equipment tumbled on top of them. Few of those who were thrown in the water could swim and women in particularly were weighed down by their voluminous skirts and heavy shoes. Some were crushed between the capsized ship and rescue boats bobbing in the water.
In the end the bodies of 844 passengers and four crew members were taken near-by makeshift morgues then later consolidated at the Illinois National Guard 2nd Regiment Armory where they were laid out in neat rows for identification. In gut wrenching scenes still wet survivors paced up and down the lines searching for loved ones from whom they had become separated. Too often, they found them. After a day or so and the opportunity of loved ones not on the ship to join in viewing the bodies, the vast majority were identified, although a handful never would be. More than 280, most Czech immigrants, came from the village of Cicero in the immediate neighborhood of the Hawthorne plant.
|Family members search for loved one laid out in a makeshift morgue at the 2nd Regiment Arsenal nearby.|
The disaster, which is recognized as the greatest maritime loss of life on the Great Lakes despite having occurred in the River, dominated headlines for months with recriminations and charges flying. A Federal investigation made one important, if ironic discovery. Newly enacted legislation adopted in response to the sinking of the SS Titanic in 1912, required that the Eastland carry a full complement of life boats, which were dutifully hung around the upper decks. But the heavy wooden boats further destabilized the already top-heavy ship and probably contributed to the roll. None of the lifeboats could be launched to save passengers in the water because they were either caught below the hull or left high and dry on the exposed side.
At least 22 whole families perished and some of the unidentified bodies may have belonged to family units.
A Cook County Grand Jury indicted three officers of the steamship company, the captain and executive officer. All of the men refused to be voluntarily extradited from their homes in Michigan. Clarence Darrow represented the men in extradition hearings. He must have done a hell of a good job because the judge found that there was “barely a scintilla of proof” to establish probable cause to find the men guilty.
No civil action was ever successfully brought against any party by survivors or heirs meaning that they never received any damage payments for their losses. A few families had life insurance—basically burial policies from ethnic benevolent societies—but most did not. Although they sponsored the outing, Western Electric assumed no responsibility to its employees. Newspapers, churches, and fraternal orders raised money for burial services and some medical bills of survivors.
|The Eastland was re-floated and salvaged and became the Navy's U.S.S. Wilmette, a gun boat and training vessel in service on the Great Lakes until 1947.|
As for the Eastland, the ship was re-floated and repaired. Her association with the disaster, however, was too great for her ever to be returned to passenger service. She was sold to the Navy which converted her to a gunboat and Training ship for Naval Reserve sailors based out of Great Lakes Naval Station. She was re-christened the USS Wilmette. During World War II she was used to train Navy armed guards that were to be stationed on Merchant Marine vessels during convoy operations. She also took President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy, James F. Byrnes, and Harry Hopkins on a 10-day cruise to McGregor and Whitefish Bay to plan war strategies.
In 1947 the Wilmette was decommissioned for the final time. The next year she was sold and cut up for scrap.
Among the many reporters who covered the disaster was a young Carl Sandburg who was deeply moved by the event and the circus-like coverage it received. In the pages of his employer’s paper, Sandburg had to be restrained. But the militant Socialist and former Party organizer in Milwaukee found room to vent in the pages of the International Socialist Review.
He saw the Eastland disaster not as an accident or aberration but part and parcel with the day to day privation, injury, and death faced by the working class. He held no punches in this powerful poem.
|As a young reporter Carl Sandburg covered the disaster. As a poet and a Socialist, he saw the disaster as part of a larger catastrophe suffered by the working class.|
Let’s be honest now
For a couple of minutes
Even though we’re in Chicago.
Since you ask me about it,
I let you have it straight;
My guts ain’t ticklish about the Eastland.
It was a hell of a job, of course
To dump 2,500 people in their clean picnic clothes
All ready for a whole lot of real fun
Down into the dirty Chicago river without any warning.
Women and kids, wet hair and scared faces,
The coroner hauling truckloads of the dripping dead
To the Second Regiment armory where doctors waited
With useless pulmotors and the eight hundred motionless stiff
Lay ready for their relatives to pick them out on the floor
And take them home and call up the undertaker. . .
Well I was saying
My guts ain’t ticklish about it.
I got imagination: I see a pile of three thousand dead people
Killed by the con, tuberculosis, too much work
and not enough fresh air and green groceries . . .
A lot of cheap roughnecks and the women and children of wops,
and hardly any bankers and corporation lawyers or their kids,
die from the con three thousand a year in Chicago
and a hundred and fifty thousand a year in the United States
all from the con and not enough fresh air and green groceries...
If you want to see excitement, more noise and crying than you ever heard
in one of these big disasters the newsboys clean up on,
Go and stack in a high pile all the babies that die in Christian Philadelphia,
New York, Boston, and Chicago in one year
before aforesaid babies haven’t had enough good milk;
On top the pile put all the little early babies pulled from mothers
willing to be torn with abortions
rather than bring more children into the world—
Jesus, that would make a front page picture for the Sunday papers
And you could write under it:
Born from the soil of love,
Yet now perished.
Have you ever stood and watched the kids going to work of a morning?
White faces, skinny legs and arms, slouching along
rubbing the sleep out of their eyes on the go to hold their jobs?
Can you imagine a procession of all the whores of a big town,
marching and marching with painted faces and mocking struts,
all the women who sleep in faded hotels and furnished rooms
with any man coming along with a dollar or five dollars?
Or all the structural iron workers, railroad men and factory hands
in mass formation with stubs of arms and stumps of legs,
bodies broken and hacked while bosses yelled,
“Speed-no slack-go to it!”?
Or two by two all the girls and women
who go to the hind doors of restaurants
and through the alleys and on the market street
digging into the garbage barrels
to get scraps of stuff to eat?
By the living Christ, these would make disaster pictures to paste on
the front pages of the newspapers.
Yes, the Eastland was a dirty bloody job—bah!
I see a dozen Eastlands
Every morning on my way to work
And a dozen more going home at night.