Excursion to Death

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“Oh, I don’t think so,” the man answered. “There aren’t so many people on board, but those that are, are all on the upper deck. That’s why it looks crowded.”

We looked up. People were indeed jammed along the rail, cheek by jowl. At that moment a ticket taker at the other end of the gangplank shouted: “Get all on this boat you can. The other boats will be overcrowded and we don’t want to leave anybody.”

I relaxed. We’d make it after all.

Then came the first hint of impending disaster. Packed though it was with people going aboard, the gangplank slowly rose at least two feet from the dock. At the same time, the Eastland ’s clifflike side fell back away from us.

Uncle Charles grasped my hand, pulling me out of line. “We’ll have to take the Roosevelt ,” he said abruptly. So near—yet so far. I almost cried.

 
In order to reach the Roosevelt, we climbed up to the Clark Street bridge. On the bridge, when I looked back, the Eastland didn’t appear to list at all. Passengers had stopped going aboard, and I watched her wistfully as we waited lor a chance to go down to board the Roosevelt . It was then that I saw the Eastland cant noticeably away from the pier—toward the middle of the river.

“She’s leaning!” I shouted to my uncle.

We pushed to the bridge railing lor a better view. She was leaning, tilting at what must have been an angle of at least thirty degrees. But the mandolin-and-fiddle orchestra still played and the laughter and shouts continued. Her deck, I remember, was a sea of white shirts, white duck trousers, and fluttering white handkerchiefs. On the bridge, the captain calmly gave the routine orders to get under way as the tug Kenosha pushed alongside, preparing to pull the Eastland down the river and out into Lake Michigan.

As the tug’s lines were secured to the Eastland ’s prow, there were shouts of “See you in Michigan City!” and “Save that dance for me!” Then a launch sped down the middle of the river, a movie camera cranking furiously on its foredeck. In 1915 a movie camera was a novelty, and this one inspired high jinks and imitations of Charlie Chaplin aboard the steamer. It was later stated by some witnesses that the camera launch had caused a rush to the Eastland ’s port side. But, as I remember it, the Eastland ’s deck was so crowded that no such mass movement could have been possible. Yet at this instant, the Eastland heeled over so far that tragedy became inevitable.

At her stern she was still moored to the dock; at her prow, to the tug. But now only the stern lines were taut, and it is likely that they prolonged the breathless moment. All aboard suddenly realized that the ship was doomed to tip over into the river. The music stopped in the middle of a bar. There was a moment of uncanny silence. Then, as people began sliding, jumping, catapulting into the water, the screaming began. At that time I had never heard adults in a panic, and even today I think that the cries of those on the Eastland are the most terrifying thing I have ever heard. The screams were taken up in greater chorus by the crowds on the bridge around us, by those on the other boats, and by those watching from a warehouse across the river. One minute, silence; the next, a gigantic roar, a cry of despair. As the Eastland leaned farther over, there came an explosion of wood as the taut stern lines pulled the mooring posts from their sockets.

Slowly the ship rolled over on her port side until her deck was submerged to the center. Men, women, and children slid from her like ants brushed from a plank. Hundreds floated struggling out into the river, some trying to swim, others helplessly opening their mouths to scream, only to be choked by dirty water as their terrified, imploring faces sank from sight. Etched in my young mind was the sight of women buoyed up for a time by air trapped under their billowing, voluminous skirts and of babies momentarily floating like corks until the water soaked them. The entire surface of the river was black with writhing, drowning humanity.

Negro workmen in the warehouse across the river began hurling boards, crates, anything that would float, into the water to be clutched at by the drowning. Men stripped to their underwear and dove to the rescue. Hundreds of life preservers were flung into the water from the Roosevelt.