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The SS Eastland Disaster

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Launched in 1903, the SS Eastland became known as the “Speed queen of the Great Lakes.” She carried up to 2,500 passengers on excursions, but in 1915 a massive disaster struck. It was a catastrophic loss of human life that could have been prevented.

Eastland Design Flaws

Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan constructed the Eastland. The Michigan Steamship Company planned to use the vessel to carry passengers between Chicago, Illinois and South Haven, Michigan. The harbour entrance at South Haven wasn’t very deep so that dictated the Eastland had to have a shallow draft.

This is where we meet the concept of metacentric height. In naval architecture, this is how a ship’s centre of gravity is maintained so that it remains buoyant and stable in the water. The superstructure of a vessel must be counterbalanced below the water level so that it doesn’t become top heavy.

The initial design of the SS Eastland called for a low metacentric height, but as she was being built changes were made. As the Eastland Disaster Historical Society reports “60 feet of length was removed from the Eastland (making it less buoyant); it was also built with one additional deck (making it more top heavy).”

The result was a passenger vessel that tended to be tippy. Amazingly, neither government inspectors nor the shipbuilders carried out tests to determine the Eastland’s stability.

Lessons from the Titanic

On April 10, 1912, RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton, U.K. with 2,240 passengers and crew aboard. She had 20 lifeboats, enough to carry 1,178 people. But, Titanic was “practically unsinkable,” so why bother with any lifeboats at all?

Of course, we all know that the practically unsinkable Titanic sank in the North Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg. Chaos and confusion meant most lifeboats were launched with far less than their capacity aboard.

Titanic survivors in one of the ship’s collapsible lifeboats; clearly, there was room for more.

Titanic survivors in one of the ship’s collapsible lifeboats; clearly, there was room for more.

As a result of the catastrophe, maritime law was changed to mandate an increased lifeboat capacity. Smithsonian Magazine reports that “In the United States, Congress passed a bill requiring lifeboats to accommodate 75 percent of a vessel’s passengers, and in March, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed what became known as the LaFollette Seaman’s Act.”

For the SS Eastland, this meant adding five lifeboats, three dozen life rafts, and 2,500 life jackets. These were mostly stowed on upper decks adding several tons of weight to the already unstable vessel. Experts warned that adding this poundage to shallow-draft Great Lakes ships was likely to cause some to “turn turtle.”

Again, it was not deemed necessary to run tests to determine whether or not the Eastland was safe.

Day of Disaster

Journalist and poet Carl Sandburg described the SS Eastland as “a cranky, unstable ancient hoodoo tub,” because it had almost capsized on a couple of occasions. Ownership of the vessel had changed hands a few times and, in 1915, it was bought by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company for $150,000; it seemed like a bargain price at the time.

In July 1915, the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works chartered the Eastland to carry workers to a company picnic. Staff were pressured to buy tickets to the event and to wear white. Western Electric wanted a nice photograph of all its happy workers for advertising purposes.

Employees were advised to board the ship early on Saturday, July 24. At 7 a.m. people started boarding the vessel that was tied up at a wharf on the Chicago River. It was a cool and drizzly day, so many passengers headed for shelter on lower decks. Others braved the weather and headed for the top deck.

At about 7:15 a.m., the ship started to lean a little to port, but nobody seemed concerned as it righted itself. But, at 7:23 it listed again, this time more acutely, and water came through port holes and gangways and into the engine room. Five minutes later, the Eastland was leaning over at a 45 degree angle, and then she rolled onto her port side in 20 feet of water.

The tragic fate of the SS Eastland.

The tragic fate of the SS Eastland.

Some of the people on the upper deck were able to clamber over the starboard railing and walk across the hull to safety; others were pitched into the river. Those below decks were not so fortunate. Some were crushed by heavy furniture, such as a grand piano and a refrigerator, sliding across the tilted decks, others drowned as water gushed in preventing any means of escape.

Nurse Helen Repa recalled “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 them all.”

The total of lives lost was 844: 472 women, 290 children, and 82 men.

A body is recovered from the river.

A body is recovered from the river.

Blame for the SS Eastland Disaster

Quickly, inquiries got underway; seven in all. However, the case dragged on for two decades, during which time the vessel’s chief engineer, Joseph Erickson died; so, it became convenient to fix the blame on him for failing to properly use the ballast tanks when the ship started listing.

There were plenty of other people who had a reason to fear being held culpable, but they all escaped. The owners were found to be not at fault, neither was the captain. Government inspectors, who should have flagged the Eastland’s design flaws, were also absolved.

The families of those who died got virtually nothing in the way of compensation.

The carcass of the SS Eastland was salvaged, repaired, and sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve. She was re-christened USS Wilmette, converted to a gunboat, and used as a training ship on the Great Lakes. She was scrapped in 1946.

Bonus Factoids

  • Body Number 396, who got the nickname “Little Feller,” remained unclaimed in a temporary morgue. At a funeral home where he was being prepared for burial, some children recognized him. He was seven-year-old Willie Novotny. He was unclaimed because the rest of his family had perished in the disaster.
  • The passenger death toll from the SS Eastland was greater than the RMS Titanic (829 passengers and plus 694 crew) or the RMS Lusitania (785 passengers and 413 crew). However, the Eastland disaster has been largely forgotten. The President of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, Ted Wachholz, thinks he understands why the bigger tragedy has unrecognized: “There wasn’t anyone rich or famous onboard. It was all hardworking, salt-of-the-earth immigrant families.”
  • Poet Carl Sandburg saw a clear parallel between the SS Eastland tragedy and the everyday exploitation of labour by American capitalists; what he described as the “Grim industrial feudalism stands with dripping and red hands behind the whole Eastland affair.” To express his anger he wrote the poem, The Eastland, that, in part, says:

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. . .
The poem was deemed too controversial to be published, but surfaced in 1993.

Sources

  • “The Design and Construction.” Eastland Disaster Historical Society, undated.
  • “The Eastland Disaster Killed More Passengers than the Titanic and the Lusitania. Why Has It Been Forgotten?” Susan Q. Stranahan, Smithsonian Magazine, October 27, 2014.
  • “Titanic.” History.com, March 20, 2020.
  • “Lost to the Lake: The SS Eastland Disaster.” Sharon Pisacreta, Lake Effect Living, December 2011.
  • “1915―Eastland Disaster.” Chicagology, undated.
  • “The Other Sandburg.” Wes Smith, Chicago Tribune, October 6, 1993.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Ann Carr from SW England on November 12, 2020:

Precisely. You've got it.

Ann

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 12, 2020:

Grenfell Tower and SS Eastland can be listed along with countless mining disasters, Bhopal gas tragedy, and early re-opening during the coronavirus pandemic as examples of marginalized people being deemed expendable in the service of profits.

Ann Carr from SW England on November 12, 2020:

What a sad story. How often the constructors and designers cut corners, even in this day and age, especially if they can save money. We don't learn. Grenfell Tower comes to mind - a tower block of flats with dodgy cladding that caught fire. As far as I know, no one has yet been brought to book for it. The planners and committees who passed it in the building and signing off stages are the most responsible in my mind.

I'm glad you brought this to our attention. It reminds us of how lives are cheapened sometimes, for greed or prestige.

Ann

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 12, 2020:

This was a good account of a tragic event, Rupert. It is a pity it isn't given a more prominent place in history. Thank you for sharing that Carl Sandburg poem also.

Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on November 11, 2020:

Rupert, very informative and tragic. It seems that a movie about this could be adapted. I suppose it is distasteful to seek entertainment at the deaths of others.