Excursion to Death

When Uncle Charles was given two tickets for the annual Western Electric Company picnic, I was excited days before the event. I was eight years old, but the picnic festivities themselves at Michigan City, Indiana, meant little to me. The supreme thrill came from the anticipation of embarking on a steamer at Chicago for the trip across Lake Michigan to the picnic site.

My earliest childhood was spent north of Chicago at my grandmother’s in Evanston, just fifty feet from the edge of the lake. There I passed many hours sitting on the shore watching the lake ships through a pair of ancient opera glasses, identifying freighters, tugs, barges, tankers. Twice a day 1 ran out to the end of the breakwater to see the old whaleback Christopher Columbus pass on her way to and from Milwaukee.

To me the lake was a living, fascinating creature of sometimes terrifying moods. A mile north was the Grosse Pointe lighthouse and foghorn. On stormy nights, when the wind whistled and the foghorn mournfully sounded, my grandmother s house was pervaded by an eerie sense of the peril of the deep.

But the lake was to provide no storm-tossed high adventure for me. It prepared an experience far more fearsome.

No thought of tragedy could have crossed the minds of the seven thousand who had passage booked for Saturday, July 24, 1915, on chartered lake steamers from the Chicago River piers to the Western Electric picnic. And that Friday night I was too excited to sleep. Would we be out of sight of land? I wondered. Would I be permitted to see the engines and the steering mechanism? Would I be lucky enough to sail on the Eastland, or would it be one of the “lesser” boats? I knew all about the Eastland . She had a reputation of being the fastest boat on the lakes, with a speed of twenty-three miles an hour. She was 265 feet long, 38 feet wide, and weighed 1,961 tons. Newspaper ads heralded her as: “the Twin-screw steel ship, Eastland , Largest, Finest, and Fastest Excursion Steamship.…” The ads neglected to mention that the Eastland had a history of being an unstable ship.

 
 

A thin mist drifted off the lake as Uncle Charles and I left for Chicago that Saturday morning about six thirty. When the elevated train crossed the Chicago River into the Loop, I glimpsed the picnic steamers loading a block away, and urged Uncle Charles to get off at the next station and walk the few blocks to the Eastland ’s dock. But my uncle had no taste for walking anywhere but on a golf course, and we stayed on the el until it went around the Loop and came back closer to the pier. This delay most likely saved our lives.

Streams of people in a festive mood headed toward the docks, including, I noticed, many boys and girls my age dressed for the occasion in sailor suits and middy blouses.

I had my first good look at the Eastland when we arrived at her pier just west of the Clark Street bridge and got in line. I remember a feeling of awe at her hugeness, her sleek lines and the twin funnels from which rose tall plumes of smoke. Two other steamers were in the immediate vicinity: the Petoskey across the river, and the Theodore Roosevelt to the east of the bridge. They seemed stumpy, small, and ugly compared to the racy magnificence of the Eastland .

We were soon caught in a jam of people struggling toward the Eastland , but Uncle Charles’ attention centered on the ship’s crowded upper deck.

“I hate to disappoint you,” he said gently, “but we may have to take the Roosevelt —the Eastland looks full.”

“But the Eastland will be first to go—and she’s the fastest,” I argued.

“We’ll try, anyway,” he replied.

As we moved slowly toward her, the side of the Eastland looked like an enormous gray wall pierced with portholes through which I could see happy faces. I also noticed electric light bulbs shining inside the ship, and the fact that she manufactured her own light greatly impressed me.

The papers said later that the Eastland ’s crew was “herding passengers aboard like cattle.” If so, I wasn’t tall enough to see it, though I do recall the press of the crowd. Somewhere on the top deck, heard above the din of thousands of merry voices, a little mandolin-and-fiddle orchestra played ragtime.

When we got nearer the gangplank, Uncle Charles spoke to a uniformed official: “Isn’t the boat packed?”