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The Eastland

June 2024
4min read

After dinner on winter Sunday evenings, the women sat in the parlor. The men lingered in the kitchen, Standing in a wide half-circle around the white enameled stove. They sipped coffee, smoked cigars, and talked about the ships and lore of the Great Lakes. They spoke of sailing ships, side-wheelers, and steam tugs, of ice and fog, storms and collisions, of vessels lost without a trace. They were, as I recall, good storytellers. It was the middle years of the 1930s.

Among sailors all across the inland sea, she was known as a difficult ship to manage.

My brother and I sat quietly on green ladder-back chairs and listened. At my grandfather’s house the notion that children should be seen and not heard was not just a maxim; it was one of the commandments.

My grandfather James Mulholland led the discussion as if it were a seminar. He had been raised around the Cuyahoga harbor, worked on the Great Lakes, and eventually operated passenger vessels. His sons knew the region, and his son-in-law, my father, had frequented Cleveland Harbor since childhood because his father operated a tug out of the Cuyahoga River.

I remember my grandfather’s stories best. He told of the Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior, the steamship Bannockburn , which disappeared with no survivors off Eagle Harbor in 1902. Thereafter in bad storms she reappeared to sailors, a ghost ship with a ghost crew rolling in the seas and calling for help.

“Do you remember the Big Blow of 1913?” my grandfather would ask my father and uncles. Of course they did. That six-day November gale remains the most destructive storm in the history of inland navigation. Two hundred and forty-eight mariners were lost, nineteen freighters destroyed. Eight ships disappeared with all hands, “under monstrous and malevolent thirty-five-foot waves,” my grandfather would add. He himself had seen the SS Howard M. Hanna, Jr. , leave Lorain Harbor on a calm Saturday morning, and by Sunday night she had broken in half in the howling winds, fetching up on Port Austin Reef.

The men would spin yarns until well into the evening, when inevitably someone would bring up the Eastland . They should have known better. An ominous quiet would descend upon the kitchen gathering, and when the conversation resumed, my grandfather hardly joined in. He would stand looking at his shoes, his cigar long since extinguished. “She was a seaworthy ship when she was handled right,” he might say. We all knew it was time to start searching for the coats and boots, that the evening had come to an end.

Just after the turn of the century, the steamer Eastland was the fastest passenger steamship on the Great Lakes. She went down the ways at Port Huron in 1903 and entered the Chicago and Lake Michigan trade. She was tall and white, with two stacks and twin screw propellers. She could make twenty-two miles per hour, and when she overtook a rival vessel, a steam calliope on her hurricane deck would play “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”

But the Eastland had her drawbacks. Her engines burned five tons of coal per hour. Worse, she rode high in the water, and she had no keel. From the outset there were questions about her sea-worthiness. Among seamen all across the inland sea, she was known as a difficult vessel to manage.

In 1909, after six years of service, the Eastland was sold to a group of Cleveland businessman, many of them city officials in Mayor Tom L. Johnson’s administration. They ran the ship daily between Cleveland and Cedar Point, with a moonlight cruise on Lake Erie every evening. My grandfather was one of her principal owners. He was also the ship’s manager, and in 1914 when the Eastland was sold to the St. Joseph and Chicago Steamship Company, it was he who negotiated the sale.

The Eastland never turned a profit in her Cleveland years. Winters were long, the sailing season short, and the ship burned all that fuel. Her politician owners didn’t help. They gave away as many tickets as they sold—my mother, her three brothers, and all their classmates were frequent nonpaying passengers—and concerns about safety persisted.

In August 1910 the rumors became so pervasive that the owners took out a half-page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer offering a five-thousand-dollar reward to anyone who could prove that the Eastland was not seaworthy. There were no takers. But my mother remembers three or four nights when she and her schoolmates were turned away from a moonlight cruise by a company official who said, “You’ll not be going out on this ship tonight. I don’t like the winds;” The official was her father, my grandfather.

When I was in my thirties, I looked up the full story of the Eastland disaster. The Western Electric Company had booked the Eastland and four other excursion ships for a company picnic that was to begin with a cruise from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana. Early in the morning on Saturday, July 24, 1915, families packed picnic hampers and made their way to a pier on the Chicago River just west of Clark Street. By 7:15 A.M. the Eastland was seriously overloaded. More than twenty-five hundred passengers were packed aboard, most of them on the top deck. The ship began to lean to port. Ballast water was pumped in, and she righted briefly, but then she began to list again. (Investigators later declared her ballast tanks had been improperly filled.) At 7:23, still tied to the dock, the Eastland once more listed sharply to port. The captain shouted from the bridge to open the inside doors and let the people out, but it was too late.

Death came in slow motion, in full view of passersby, before the ship had even left the dock.

Death came that morning in slow motion. The ship leaned toward the river, at angles of twenty, then thirty, then forty degrees. In the final seconds the Eastland rolled over and settled on her side in twenty-one feet of water. Eight hundred and twelve people drowned that day; by Monday the death toll had reached 835. What made the Eastland tragedy so incomprehensible was that it took place in the heart of a major city, in full view of passersby, before the ship had even left the dock.

My grandfather brooded over the accident the rest of his life. Had he known she was unseaworthy? Maybe. He prevented his daughter from sailing when the wind was up. Had he withheld information about the ship’s instability when he sold her in 1914? Perhaps. It’s true he and his partners were $130,000 in debt and desperate to sell. But does a baseballclub owner mention a pitcher’s bad elbow when he’s traded to a different team? Do homeowners tell prospective buyers about leaky basements? I don’t know if my grandfather could have prevented the accident, but I do know he carried the guilt for those 835 deaths to his grave. Because he talked about every other ship misfortune except the one about which he had intimate knowledge.

If my brother and I had urged him to tell his side of events, it might have helped relieve his conscience. But our prudence overcame our curiosity. We never asked. As for the Eastland , she was righted, stripped of her top-heavy upper deck, and sold to the U.S. Navy as a training vessel. Thus reconfigured, she sailed another 150,000 miles hefore being taken out of service in 1948. She never produced another accident. My grandfather survived her by four years. He never told the story.

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