Launched in 1903 the steamship Eastland was riddled with bad luck from the beginning. At her launch she nearly capsized and throughout the rest of her career she continued to suffer similar accidents. Professionals had gone so far as to say that instead of operating as a passenger ship, the Eastland should rather serve as a cargo vessel. The Eastland suffered from balancing problems. The majority of her accidents always involved severe listing or near capsizing. In 1904 the Eastland’s capacity was reduced to 2,800 people, after she nearly capsized. After major renovations, though, the operators had managed to raise the capacity. But it was again lowered, this time to 2,400, after a like problem was experienced. In 1914 the St. Joseph Chicago Steamship Company bought the ill fated ship from the Eastland Navigation Company. This was the fourth time the ship had been sold.
It was July 24, 1915 and Western Electric employees were venturing out on a picnic to Michigan City, Indiana. Employees poured in with their families and began boarding the ship. It is worth noting that some employees felt compelled to buy tickets to the picnic. A few even claimed that they had lost their jobs due to the fact that they didn’t attend the annual outing. Western Electric denied this charge. The picnic had been started in 1881, a simple outing. By 1915 it had become popular with over 2000 attending. While a few poor, discontented souls may have felt the way they did about the company picnic, it seems the majority looked forward to the ‘holiday’. Most of the employees were European immigrant.
There was something odd about the Eastland. She was pitching and listing. One person observed that the crew was “taking out a lot of ballast”. Though the ship was pitching, the passengers took it rather well, almost as if they enjoyed it. Harbormaster Adam Weckler noticed the Eastland’s list and called to Captain Harry Pedersen to
Put in your ballast!…Trim her up!
Pedersen: We’re trimming her all the time!
One man later said that while the majority of those aboard were standing over on the starboard side, the ship was listing to port. The lifesaving equipment may have contributed to the Eastland‘s demise, making the ship top-heavy. As Pedersen was preparing to cast off, Weckler yelled to him from the dock that he would not allow Pedersen to cast off until the ship was trimmed. Down in the engine room Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson was having his own troubles. Two of the ballast tanks, 4 and 5, were not filling. This may have been due to a clogged valves. The Eastland had suffered problems like this in the past. Soon the assistant engineer, Charles Silvernail, appeared up on deck telling the passenger to move to the starboard side. The ship wasn’t balancing. When it became apparent that the ship was “going over” Weckler had the Coast Guard alerted.
Water began streaming into the open gangway where just moments before passengers had been boarding. Strangely enough, the Western Electric employees didn’t panic. They quietly moved away from the gangway as if nothing unusual were happening. First Mate Del Fisher ordered the people to the starboard side, but the slippery decks and angle made it difficult if not impossible. Just before the Eastland fell into the river, it was as if time stood still. The ship was suspended momentarily and many were relived. It looked as if the ship was righting herself. She didn’t. Then came the panic and screams. All over the Eastland people rushed about trying to find some way to save themselves. As the list became greater, terrified individuals jumped or fell overboard. Men, women and children alike were in a struggle for self-preservation. Fisher stayed aboard as long as he could but when he did get away he saved a girl. Pedersen also survived and would later make somewhat of a fool of himself. In the engine room, Erickson tried to shut down the boilers to avoid an explosion.
On the riverfront Chicagoans gazes in horror as they watched the ship fall over. It wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. While many were struck dumb by the calamity a man by the name of Olaf Ness, passenger and survivor of the Eastland, added twenty-seven more survivors to the list of living. He was traveling with his sister and her children, all of whom would survive after being trapped in the ship. Employees at a nearby poultry market threw crates and coops into the Chicago River for survivors to grab hold of. On the upturned side of the Eastland survivors were standing lined up. Below them in the water their family, friends and co-workers were locked in a struggle with death. They
literally covered the surface of the river…The screaming was the most horrible of all – Nurse Helen Repa.
The nearby S.S. Theodore Roosevelt’s lifeboats were launched but their arrival was much too late. Also coming to the aid of the distressed were ambulances, the fire department and Coast Guard. On the docks would-be rescuers were kept back by policemen, as were welders who had hoped to save those trapped within the ship.
As if things weren’t bad enough Pedersen threw something akin to a temper tantrum. This may been related to a head injury received moments before. He ordered a welder to stop, when he noticed them preparing to cut up his ship. The welder ignored Pedersen’s orders and went back to welding. Pedersen ‘blew his stack’. Survivors standing on the Eastland’s side with Pedersen were ready to throw him overboard. In the nick of time a policeman got the enraged captain onto the tug J. W. Taylor placing him under arrest ‘for his own safety’. Later while being transported for questioning a man knocked Pedersen in the face.
The Police force made up for their past actions and began fishing out the dead and living from the filthy river. Divers entered the submerged ship and began taking out the dead. A teenager named Reggie Bowles made many dives bringing up 36 corpses. He became known as the human frog. One firemen was handed a dead child, a little girl, who he laid on an awaiting stretcher. It was then he noticed it was his own daughter. In all there were 884 lost.
Blame was placed on the shoulders of Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson in 1935. By that time he had been dead 16 years, having died in 1919 from heart disease. The Eastland was later sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and renamed USS Wilmette. The Eastland/Wilmette was scrapped in 1947.
For further reading I highly recommend The Sinking of the Eastland by Jay Bonansinga. It’s an interesting read and very informative. Bonansinga tends to focus on two families, the Sindelars and Aanstads. Still the book doesn’t lack for detail and there are also 16 pages of pictures. The Sinking of the Eastland is one of those books that if you weren’t interested in the subject, you will be when you’re through. If you are interested in the Eastland than by all means go for it.
Source: Bonansinga, Jay. The Sinking of the Eastland : America’s Forgotten Tragedy.