LAKELAND BOATING: JULY 2015
Gentle hands remove the rope from her small body. Her fair hair cascades forward, dripping, revealing a pale, fragile neck. Her fine dress is ruined, and her little stockinged legs are crumpled beneath her.
This could be anyone’s daughter, dressed in her best for an eagerly anticipated day of picnicking with her working-class family. Instead, her hopes, dreams and very life vanished in the murky, cold Chicago River on one anguished summer morning.
She died on the SS Eastland, along with 843 others, when the steamer suddenly rolled over on July 24, 1915. It was the worst maritime disaster in Great Lakes history; more passengers died that day than died on the RMS Titanic just three years earlier.
Yet many people haven’t heard of the Eastland. Perhaps it’s because the sinking of the RMS Lusitania had captured the nation’s attention that spring, or perhaps the dawn of World War I doomed the accident to obscurity.
“I had lived in Chicago for years,” says author Michael McCarthy, whose acclaimed book Ashes Under Water tells the story of the Eastland, and of the legal drama that shook the Midwest after she capsized. “One day I was having lunch on the river, and a friend mentioned that a ship had sunk there. So many people died, and I wondered, how could I never have heard of this?”
Ted Wachholz, executive director of the not-for-profit Eastland Disaster Historical Society, grew up in the Chicago suburb of Elgin and also was not familiar with what happened on that drizzly July morning in the heart of the city.
“I married into it, because my wife’s grandmother was an Eastland survivor,” Wachholz said. “In 25 years, I’d never heard of the Eastland. I wasn’t alone. I found it bizarre that people didn’t even recognize the ship’s name — not even lifelong Chicago residents.”
A Cranky Ship Turns Deadly
Built in 1903, the 265-foot Eastland was the first and only passenger ship built by the Port Huron, Michigan-based Jenks Shipbuilding Company, which specialized in bulk freighters. With a 38-foot beam, four Scotch boilers and two triple-expansion steam engines, she was built for speed. Unfortunately, this slender steel steamer also had a high superstructure, and with a capacity of more than 2,700 passengers, she was prone to listing.
“The Eastland went through several owners over a 12-year timeline, and you start to see a pattern,” says Jim Retseck, co-president of the Michigan City Historical Society in Indiana. “She quickly got a reputation for being a tender ship, a little squirrelly. There were problems from the beginning.”
In July 1904, the Eastland nearly capsized off South Haven, Michigan, badly frightening passengers. In the years to follow, she would have so many near misses that her reputation suffered. Her owners took out a newspaper advertisement, offering $5,000 to anyone who could prove she was unsafe.
No one did.
“She left Lake Erie and came back to Lake Michigan, and then there were problems here, out of St. Joe,” Retseck says. “She had all kinds of run-ins with docks, props and sandbars. Other boats did too, but with her listing problems, it became scary.”
New problems piled atop existing problems. After the Titanic sank in April 1912, maritime law required that ships carry additional lifeboats and life rafts. This made the Eastland even more top-heavy, and then the owners added 2 inches of concrete to replace aging wooden decks.
“The ship went from tender to cranky to deadly,” Retseck says.
“They never could control the ship,” McCarthy adds. “They couldn’t for 11 years, but they were lucky. Until their luck ran out.”
On July 24, 1915, five excursion steamers were poised to carry thousands of Western Electric Company workers from Chicago to Michigan City for their annual company picnic. At 7:28 a.m., with 2,501 people aboard, the Eastland rolled onto her port side and came to rest on the river bottom. Hundreds were trapped belowdecks. Others were crushed by falling debris, or drowned in their waterlogged picnic clothes.
The Eastland Legacy
Together with his wife and his sister-in-law, Wachholz formed the Eastland Disaster Historical Society in 1998 to gather and preserve Eastland testimonies — about the 844 who were lost, the 1,657 who survived, and the tens of thousands who had some peripheral involvement.
“There were rescue workers, bystanders, store owners, surviving family and friends,” he explains. “These people were all directly affected by this disaster, and four generations later, there are countless people alive today with some connection to the tragedy. We exist to capture personal family information, and to connect people with each other.”
Those stories bring the disaster to life. One family from Peoria, Illinois, shared a personal testimony that describes the horror of trying to find loved ones in a makeshift morgue at the Second Regiment Armory (today’s Harpo Studios). The armory was overflowing with more than 800 victims, with 85 bodies per line.
The descendants of survivor J.V. Brown provided a nightmarish description of being on a lower deck on the Eastland’s river side when the ship capsized. He fought his way under water, searching for an air pocket as frantic people grabbed his arms and legs.
“He said, ‘No man is a hero under water,’” Wachholz relates. “That really says it all.”
In his testimony, survivor Charles Kelly attempted to describe the indescribable: “You might close your eyes and try to imagine the scene, but you could not stretch your imagination far enough to cover it as it really was; to be in it is the only way one can realize the enormity of it.”
Kelly’s wife, son and daughter survived. His daughter had been sitting on a bench, holding hands with another little girl. Her friend did not survive. The testimonies of these families, Wachholz says, must be preserved. They are the Eastland’s legacy.
“These people weren’t rich and famous, like those on the Titanic,” he observes. “They were 100-percent working-class people, looking forward to their day off. They were immigrants. They’re Chicago, then and now.
“In the end, remembering the Eastland isn’t about the ship,” he continues. “It’s about the people. It’s about remembering the 844. You don’t have to be rich or famous to be remembered.”
For McCarthy, bearing witness is critical for another reason.
Although he was initially exonerated along with the ship’s owners, Chief Engineer Joseph M. Erickson took all the blame for the accident when the case was reopened in the early 1930s. Yet, McCarthy discovered the Norwegian immigrant likely was one of the Eastland’s true heroes, taking steps to prevent a boiler explosion, staying at his post until he nearly drowned, and saving several lives.
He took the fall, posthumously, despite powerful evidence of guilt among the owners — as attorney Clarence Darrow marked in his notes during the 1915 trial, they had known about the Eastland’s serious problems. The ship didn’t capsize because Erickson filled the ballast tanks incorrectly. She capsized because she was a fundamentally unstable ship, and they knew it.
“It’s important to expose how calamities can result when corporations put profit before safety,” McCarthy explains. “I wanted to correct the historical record, put the evidence out there, and let readers draw their own conclusions. I also wanted to lay the myths and urban legends to rest.
“Thousands of descendants deserve to know the true story of how their family members perished, and they perished horribly,” he continues. “This tragedy changed the architecture of entire family trees; it’s a large event in American history that has more or less disappeared. It’s worth it to come back and bear witness through documentary evidence.”
It took 12 years to research and write Ashes Under Water. McCarthy says those lost on the Eastland helped him stay on course… one child, in particular.
“That little girl in the photo,” he says softly. “Based on what I know now, she didn’t have to die. This didn’t have to happen. That prompted me many times. I was doing it for her.”