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Cutting For Bodies


The Eastland Horror


By James Donahue


The mention of the steamer Eastland in and around Chicago still stirs black thoughts of hundreds of screaming men, women, and children trapped below decks to drown aboard a capsized excursion liner.


Those who watched the motion picture The Poseidon Adventure, about a liner overturned by a great tidal wave at sea, might understand what it might have been like for the 2,408 passengers and 72 crew members aboard the Eastland on July 24, 1915, when the vessel tipped on its side and sank in Chicago harbor. Of that number, 835 perished. The disaster still ranks with the sinking of the Titanic, the torpedoing of the Lusitania, and the burning of the steamer General Slocom off New York's Hell Gate as the worst of all marine tragedies. No other wreck on the Great Lakes claimed as many lives


The Eastland was one of five liners chartered that fateful morning to take an estimated seven thousand employees of the Western Electric Company on a day long picnic excursion to Michigan City, Indiana. The tickets sold for seventy-five cents and children came aboard without charge. First arrivals at the dock boarded the Eastland, which was scheduled to be the first of the vessels to leave. When officials decided the Eastland was filled to capacity, they began directing passengers over the Clark Street Bridge to the steamer Theodore Roosevelt. Also docked to take passengers were the steamers Petoskey, Racine, and Maywood.


Chicago Herald reporter Harlan E. Babcock was in the crowd still waiting on the dock. He said he noticed even before it tipped that the Eastland seemed to be listing from the weight of so many people on her upper decks.


"I vaguely remembered having heard that the Eastland had been condemned some years ago and I felt that the crew was taking awful chances in overcrowding the boat, especially as the vessel kept listing gradually but more and more every minute toward the river. Then a tugboat steamed alongside and gave several deep-throated blasts, which evidently was the signal to cast off and start.


"But it never cast off. Before even the crew had time to release the hawsers that held the boat to the dock, the vessel began to topple, and in less time than it takes to tell it, the sight of that horror stricken throng of thousands, the Eastland. . . careened, hurling hundreds screaming into the black waters of the river."


A story in that day's Herald described the events that followed: "There was a mad scramble, a panic in which the terrified passengers fought for places of safety. Shrieks and cries wrung the hearts of those on shore. A minute or two more and the ship was flat on its side. . . and those caught beneath and within were entombed. The surface of the river was thick with struggling forms. Babies perished in sight of those on the docks and bridges. The witnesses say it was all over in between four and six minutes."


The nearby streets and warehouses and the steamer Theodore Roosevelt were turned that day into morgues. As they were pulled from the water, and as workers cut others from the ship, the bodies were piled in rows. Ambulances, vans, and trucks were pressed into service as death carts. It was a tragic scene that will remain fixed in the bleaker moments of Chicago's past.


The exact cause of the disaster has always remained a mystery. After months of hearings, authorities officially blamed an obscure engineer who they said neglected to properly fill the ship's ballast tanks. Other theories ranged from an overloaded ship that was resting on a sloping river bottom to a sudden rush of passengers to the port side to view a passing launch. Still others blamed a tug, which they said was pulling on the Eastland before her lines were released from the dock.


The ballast tanks may, indeed, have played a key part in the disaster. But to understand why, we must look at history leading up to the events at Chicago. When the Eastland was launched at Port Huron on May 6, 1903, the Jenks Shipbuilding Company and the entire town treated it as a major event. Mrs. J. C. Perue, wife of the ship's first captain, broke a bottle of champagne over the bow. And Mrs. Deila Reid of South Haven, Michigan, who won a contest to name the Eastland, was presented a check for ten dollars and a pass for a free trip.


As the Eastland rumbled down the ways and hit the water in the Black River, whistles sounded and people cheered. She was the first passenger boat built in Port Huron in twenty years. The newspapers were filled with praises and graphic descriptions of the ship's stylish dining rooms, staterooms other fine points.


A story in the Port Huron Times Herald also noted that "the bottom is double, there being a space of four feet between the lower and upper bottom ... the space being divided into ten water compartments used for water ballast, allowing the ship's draft to vary from ten feet to sixteen feet in a short space of time." This feature was not uncommon in lake vessels. But though many ships of the day used water tanks for ballast none were designed quite like those on the Eastland. Each of the compartments could be individually pumped out or filled at the discretion of the captain and crew.


Speculation about why the Eastland's ballast tanks were designed this way was varied. One story was that the ship needed to blow her ballast to clear the sandbars at the entrance to various ports along the Great Lakes. Another theory was that the gangways, or side-loading doors, were built so low in the side of the ship that the water ballast had to be pumped out when the Eastland was in port to bring the gangways level with the loading docks. A Chicago newspaper reported that the Eastland's crew did that very thing on the day of the disaster. But why did Sidney G. Jenks, the man who designed the Eastland, engineer a ship that had to be raised and lowered each time it made port? The answer may lie in the contract Jenks made with the Eastland's first owners, the Michigan Transportation Company.


Competition was fierce among steamboat lines for the passenger and excursion trade at the turn of the century, and the company wanted a fast passenger ship to compete for business between Chicago and South Haven. The contract called for guarantees that this boat would travel at a speed of twenty miles per hour for at least four consecutive hours. If the ship failed to make this speed, the contract contained a penalty clause costing the builders $2,500 for every quarter mile per hour the Eastland fell short of the goal. And if the speed fell short by a full mile per hour, the builders agreed to forfeit $10,000 dollars from the $235,000 dollars contract price.


Jenks designed the Eastland for speed. Although it was 265 feet long, he made the steel hull only 38 feet wide. This made the boat about two feet thinner than the sleekest of ships then traveling the Great Lakes. Jenks also installed two thirty-five hundred-horsepower triple expansion engines that drove twin propellers.


Yet even with all of this care in planning, Jenks was disappointed when the Eastland failed to get up to the mandated speed during her trial runs. So the ship went back to the dry dock and modifications were made, which Jenks only described as "a forced draft."


 Modern-day designers have proved that when hulls are lifted higher in the water, resistance is reduced and speed can be increased. Although there is nothing on record to prove it Jenks's so-called forced draft may have been the installation of pumps to get the water in and out of the ballast tanks on demand. Taking the water out of the ballast tanks while under way would make the ship ride higher, create less resistance, and allow the boat to meet the speed requirements in the contract Jenks may also have modified the ship's keel.


Despite his modifications, Jenks always maintained that the Eastland was a safe ship. "She was seaworthy in every respect," he said. And her 43-year history of service would appear to support his claim. Before to the Chicago tragedy, the ship carried thousands of passengers between 1903 and 1915 without a serious accident. After it tipped over, the navy bought the hull, removed the high superstructure, and turned it into the training ship Wilmette. The Wilmette sailed the Great Lakes until the navy scrapped it in 1946.


Yet while she sailed as the Eastland, rumors persisted that it was a dangerous ship. Sailors labeled her a "cranky" and "hoodoo" ship almost from the day she was put on the Chicago to South Haven run.


John Adams, chief engineer on the rival steamer City of South Haven, said he remembered a time in 1906 when the Eastland nearly capsized with a full load of passengers in the middle of Lake Michigan. Adams said his ship was steaming just behind the Eastland when a cold wind suddenly developed out of the north, and deck passengers all moved to the lee side of the boat. "We saw her suddenly list to one side," he said. "The Eastland reduced its speed and after about a half hour she was again righted. We . . . expected to see her capsize at any moment and it seemed to me nothing short of a miracle that she did not." That incident caused federal authorities to take a second look at the Eastland, and they soon started putting restrictions on her passenger loads.


The Eastland was sold the next year to the Lake Shore Navigation Company, and later the Eastland Navigation Cormpany, both at Cleveland. She was put on a run between Cleveland and Cedar Point, Ohio. Here, the vessel again gained a reputation of being top-heavy, unwieldy, and unsafe. To fight the rumors, her owners tore out upper staterooms and added heavy ballast, and for a while ran a heavy advertising campaign proclaiming the ship's safety record.


But government inspectors were still concerned. During that period, the Eastland was licensed to carry no more than 653 passengers. And because she didn't carry enough lifeboats to accommodate them, the boat was required to stay within five miles of land, and in waters shallow enough that if it sank, the Eastland would not be fully submerged. But when the Eastland was bought by the Chicago St. Joseph Steamship Company and brought back to Chicago in the spring of 1915 for the excursion trade, it was re-licensed to carry 2,500 passengers.


The new owners also did some extensive remodeling, adding more upper-deck space. Some stories suggested that the extra ballast added at Cleveland was removed and the ship lightened again so that it could get in and out of the Chicago River.


There were hints that government inspectors were either bribed or in some other way persuaded to allow for the increased passenger loads for the sake of big profits. A story in the Chicago Herald quoted Illinois Attorney Maclay Hoyne as saying that members of the U.S. inspection bureau were aware that the Eastland was unsafe, but they licensed her to carry big passenger loads anyway.


"If the inspectors of the bureau had done their duty, the accident could not have occurred. We know the ship was considered unsafe by them, because there are letters on file in Washington which predicted Saturday's occurrence. I have copies of these letters," Hoyne said.


John D. York, an expert on naval design, wrote one of those letters. York told a coroner's jury after the disaster that he wrote the U. S. harbor inspector in 1913 to complain that he believed the Eastland was un-seaworthy and dangerous. "It had no keel," he said. "She is a 38-beam boat and should have a 40-inch keel. The Eastland was never fit for navigable waters. She had a government license which should never have been granted her. The inspectors should never have passed her hull at any time, even for quiet stream navigation, not to speak of the big lake and river transits."


An Illinois grand jury leveled indictments charging negligence and manslaughter against Capt. Harry Pedersen, chief engineer Joseph M. Erickson, two steamboat inspectors, and an official of the Indiana Transportation Company. But a federal judge rejected the petitions for lack of sufficient evidence.


Hundreds of lawsuits were filed, but nobody ever collected. A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld a lower-court ruling in 1935, twenty years after the disaster, that the Chicago St. Joseph Steamship Company was not liable for the deaths.


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