Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering The SS Eastland Tragedy 100 Years Later

It was a cool Saturday morning as employees from the Western Electric Company began boarding the SS Eastland, anchored in the Chicago River, for a company outing. The day’s itinerary included a trip up the river for a refreshing escape to Michigan City, Indiana and a company picnic in Washington Park. Instead, the day is remembered as the worst nautical disaster to occur on any of the Great Lakes. The date was July 24, 1915.

SS Eastland
The Eastland first set sail as a passenger ship in May of 1903, but appears to have been burdened with troubles from the beginning. During a public reception that spring, the ship began to list uncontrollably from side to side. The reason? Too many people had congregated on the upper decks. The steam ship was divested of passengers and the problem corrected, but many felt that the Eastland had a dangerous design flaw, and that things would only get worse.

Eastland Ready To Board
One year later, with 3,000 people on board, the ship again began to tilt port to starboard. Passengers panicked, but the crew regained control of the Eastland with no harm done. The listing problem resurfaced again in 1906 with 2,500 people on board, and again in 1912 with 2,400 passengers aboard.

Court Proceedings
In March 1915, the federal Seaman’s Act was enacted in order to increase the safety and security of US seamen; it included the caveat that a ship must carry enough lifeboats to hold all passengers and crew. The law came about because of the RSS Titanic disaster, which had occurred three years before.

Listing Ship
The Eastland complied with the ruling, but the added weight of the additional lifeboats made the passenger ship even more top heavy. Many feared that because of this additional weight ships would become ungainly and there would be more problems.

Excitement was in the air that July morning as over 5,000 men, women and children, many Polish and Czech immigrants, boarded five boats that had been chartered for their daylong adventure. Among the ships ready to sail was the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes:” the Eastland. 

On Her Side
Reports indicated that the ship, still tied to the dock, began easing away about 7:10 a.m. with 2,572 passengers on board. It slowly slipped about 40 feet out into the river, listing slightly. Then, at 7:28 it lurched to port (left) and capsized, rolling on it's side and coming to rest in 20 feet of water at 7:30 a.m.

Mayhem ensued as passengers above deck were thrown into the river. Those below were struck by heavy, careening furniture - a piano, bookcases and tables, which slammed into passengers, crushing them amid the rushing waters. Others suffocated when people were thrown on top of one another and they could not regain their footing. (Those desperately fought for life vests and boats were of no use here - there had not been enough warning for passengers and crew to use them.)

A Victim
The river was teaming with people trying to escape. Eyewitnesses said that the screams were what they remembered the most vividly. A total of 844 passengers died, including 22 families that were wiped out; four crew members were also killed in the disaster. Many died from their injuries; many more because they couldn’t swim.

The Morgue
The bodies were taken to several temporary morgues set up around the river. Hundreds of bodies were laid out in the Second Regiment Armory where families lined up to identify their loved ones. Some bodies were never identified; officials said that these may have been more families that all died together with no one was left to claim their remains.

New Memorial
Bohemian National Cemetery
The largest number of the dead; 134 were buried in Bohemian National Cemetery, on Chicago’s northwest side. The stones can be identified by the date: July 24, 1915 and/or the words “obet Eastland” or “Victim of the Eastland.” A granite memorial dedicated to the victims was unveiled here two weeks ago and can be found in section 16. Details concerning the disaster, and information about the gravesites are included on a plaque located next to the memorial

Grand Jury
A grand jury ruled the cause of the disaster to be “conditions of instability” due to “an overloading of passengers, mishandling of water ballasts or construction of the ship.” The ship’s captain and engineer were charged with criminal carelessness, and the ship’s company president and three officers were indicted for manslaughter. The presiding judge then changed the charges to “conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship.

USS Wilmette
In Memory
The ship was raised later that year. It was recommissioned in 1918 and named the USS Wilmette; it served in both world wars. In 1945, the Wilmette was decommissioned, and scrapped out in 1947. The ship's largest loss of life: July 24, 1915 when 844 people lost their lives in the Chicago River ...

~ Joy

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