Excursion to Death

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Many who had been on the starboard side of the vessel climbed up on her side as she careened; they didn’t even get their feet wet. Others clung to the railings. Some were strong enough to pull themselves up to safety. Some were helped. Many dropped into the water as their grip weakened. The Kenosha backed slowly into the mass of humanity, her crew hauling people aboard as fast as they could.

If one had been able to discern all of the sounds of those minutes he might have heard the muffled moaning of those trapped inside the Eastland ’s hull. Portholes were smashed and people lifted out. When they were too large to get through, their clinging hands were removed to make way for those with smaller bodies.

No sooner were my eyes fixed on one ghastly scene than they were attracted to another, equally terrible. When the police cleared the bridge, bodies were already being brought up. I remember particularly one slip of a girl, pale and lifeless, her long Alice-in-Wonderland hair wet and stringy, her thin white dress with a velvet ribbon at the waist clinging to her slender form.

It took us an hour to reach the elevated through the packed crowds, the screaming ambulances, and the other official vehicles.

When word of the disaster reached Lockport thirty-four miles away, the lock in the dam of the Drainage Canal was closed to stop the Chicago River’s current. Fireboats and tugs clustered around the death ship and began the task of gathering in the bodies. The grief-stricken procession of relatives identifying loved ones commenced.

Without a doubt it was one of the worst disasters in maritime history. The count of the dead immediately after the accident came to 812 out of the 2,500 who were aboard. (Subsequent deaths from injuries and other causes raised the toll to 835.) On the Titanic, three years before, 1,500 out of 2,200 had been lost, but the Titanic had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, while the Eastland was still lashed to her pier in the Chicago River, in the heart of a great city, with elevated trains and streetcars rattling past within a few hundred feet. The Titanic took all night to sink. It was all over with the Eastland in six terrible minutes.

The official inquiry disclosed that the Eastland had been known to sailors as “the crank ship of the Lakes.” There had been panic aboard several times before, when, cruising out on the lake, she had listed and her passengers had been ordered to shift from side to side until she stabilized. The reports of the Eastland’s instability had become so widespread that in 1910 her owners had run an ad in a newspaper offering five thousand dollars “to any person that will bring forth a naval engineer, a marine architect, a shipbuilder, or anyone qualified to pass on the merits of a ship, who will say that the steamer Eastland is not a seaworthy ship.…”

Two years before the catastrophe, a letter had been written to the Harbormaster of the Port of Chicago by a naval architect, J. Devereaux York: “You are aware of the condition of the S.S. Eastland,” the letter read, “and unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing—there may be a serious accident.”

And nine years before this letter, only a year after she had been put in service, a local steamboat inspector, in order to give the Eastland more stability, had ordered her top deck cut off and her ballast tanks filled at all times. The deck was removed, but the tanks were emptied going in and out of shallow harbors.

All of this evidence pointed to the fact that the Port Huron, Michigan, firm that built the Eastland in 1903 had one goal in mind—a ship fast enough to make the 170-mile round trip between Chicago and Grand Haven, Michigan, twice in twenty-four hours. The Eastland ’s hull was light, her superstructure was heavy, and she was narrow for her height.

None of the men indicted in the case—the president and vice president of the steamship line that owned the Eastland , her captain and chief engineer, and the two inspectors who certified her seaworthy—was ever proved guilty of charges of negligence and conspiracy. One of the most persistent accusations was that the chief engineer had contributed to the disaster by not properly filling the ballast tanks. As late as 1935, suits were still being brought in the courts by survivors of the Eastland ’s victims.