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?”

“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.

 

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.

In my teens, sailing out of Chicago aboard the old Christopher Columbus, I saw the Eastland once more. She had been bought by the Navy and, with a deck cut off, was transformed into the training ship Wilmette. I recall that she still had the smartest lines of any vessel in sight. I learned later that she served as a gunnery practice ship in the Second World War, and finally, in 1948, after sailing more than 150,000 accident-free miles for the Navy, the beautiful but deadly Eastland was broken up for scrap.