1Why do people want to forget the Eastland?
Graphic Content: Before continuing with this slideshow, be aware there are a few disturbing images of the rescue and recovery. While none are too graphic, all are tragic.
Within a year or two after the sinking, America seemed to shelve the memory of the Eastland. There’s a handful of websites, a few books, the admirable Eastland Disaster Historical Society, commemorative gravestones, and a single memorial plaque on the edge of the Chicago River.
Technically, the Titanic was “worse,” but there’s no real documentation of that luxury liner’s 1912 sinking, only accounts and a rusting hulk miles under the Atlantic. By comparison, there are hundreds of photos of the Eastland keeled over like a whale carcass in the middle of Chicago’s downtown. Motion pictures, artifacts, graves, inquests… For researchers, the Eastland is a wealth of primary sources.
If you count only the loss of passengers, the Eastland usurps Titanic. 832 civilians (not crew) died in the sinking of Titanic; 844 died on the Eastland. Why have so few heard of it? And why does Titanic have dozens of dedicated museums while the Eastland has a single plaque.
2107 years ago.
In the 1910s, Hawthorne Works, a division of Western Electric, stood as an emerging model of progressive, efficient employment. It was one of the first companies to realize happy employees work better, harder, and longer than the most coerced ones. For its day, the company provided good pay (around $18 a week, or $600 in 2022), and prestige. It would be today’s equivalent of working for Tesla or Apple.
The company’s yearly picnic was much more than a simple Sunday afternoon. In the days before paid holidays or performance bonuses, it was a luxury. Games, rides, food, swimming, all dedicated to the employees. The company employed tens of thousands of people and needed them all to happily manufacture the latest and greatest communication technology the world had yet seen: the telephone.
3It was supposed to be a perfect day.
Hawthorne Works and Western Electric were sincere in their desire to keep employees happy. These employees lived in company housing, rode company transportation, bought from company stores, and essentially lived their lives orbiting the factory. This dependency kept Western Electric thriving, and it honestly wanted to encourage comradery among the 40,000+ workers.
While the picnic was free, passage was not. Each person had to pay the $1 fee for one of the chartered passenger steamers: the Eastland, the Theodore Roosevelt, the Petoskey, the Racine or the Rochester. In 1915, $1 wasn’t a token fee, but equivalent to about $25 today. It was 40 miles to Michigan City’s Washington Park, where the picnic was held, which took around 2 and 1/2 hours, then 4 hours ashore, then another 2 and 1/2 hours back.
47:30 AM, July 24th…
Illustration of Eastland capsizing. Chicago Tribune. 7/26/1915
Top-heavy, unbalanced, and sudden beset by the weight of thousands of warm bodies, the passenger ship SS Eastland capsized in the Chicago River, just west of the Clark Street Bridge. The water was only 20-feet deep there, little more than half the ship’s beam, but it had lurched over so suddenly that no one could react.
Chicago writer Jack Woodford witnessed the terrible moment: “As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.“
5The water came alive with hundreds of screaming bodies…
Photo taken by observer Mike Psaris 8 minutes after capsizing.
These were mostly women and children. Hundreds more remained in the ship’s belly to drown. In the end welders needed to slice holes in the sides of Eastland to rescue the living and recover bodies. Casualty numbers varied wildly in the first few days, but officially the disaster took the lives of 844 passengers and 4 crew. It remains the Great Lakes’ largest loss of life in a single shipwreck, all on an excursion boat tied tightly to a wharf only 20 feet away. In those numbers, 22 entire families were wiped out.
Chicago Herald reporter Harlan Babcock described the sight three days later as the ship tossed “hundreds screaming into the black waters of the river, scores and scores of whom were to die a miserable death and penning still other terrified hundreds on the lower decks, there to either perish like rats in a suddenly-flooded dungeon or to later be saved if they could keep their heads above water.“
Escaping the interior of the Eastland wasn’t simply a matter of swimming or climbing out. Any furniture or fixtures not nailed down shifted then toppled to starboard, trapping hundreds underwater or simply crushing them. Those left had to contend with completely different surroundings.
The above (left) photo captures the recovery divers performing their grim task, but the same photo tilted 90 degrees (right) gives you an idea of ship’s actual layout. Passengers had to maneuver, in the dark, in a completely new ship.
One of the most celebrated heroes of the Eastland Disaster was a teenager named Charles Bowles, later nicknamed “the Human Frog.” This 17-year-old kid had two remarkable talents: he was a great swimmer, and he didn’t seem afraid of anything. He wriggled himself into crevices and passages that scared even the professional divers. Before they forced him to quit, the brave fellow had recovered 40 bodies alone.
“I never will forget these awful scenes. I found one woman in the hull of the boat clasping a baby in her arms. A man with his hands raised as if in prayer and a boy with his fingers gripped between his teeth were almost as pitiful,” Bowles later said in an interview.
9Who’s to blame?
Captain Pederson (right) angrily watching welders “cut holes in his ship” while rescuing trapped passengers.
Many inquests and accusations were made following the disaster, but these amounted to little. The Eastland was a product of decades of little oversight and even less regulation. If you could point a single finger at a single person, the Eastland commander, Captain Harry Pederson, would be the most obvious target.
On that morning, Pederson 1.) ignored the ship’s pronounced listing; 2.) failed to confirm the ship was properly trimmed with ballast water; 3.) ignored the sudden shifting weight of boarding passengers; and 4.) impeded the rescue of trapped passengers by repeatedly halting welders. Pederson was eventually forced to leave the scene and later would be among the six men indicted for criminal negligence. Many say the arrest saved his life. The grieving mob was so angry at the captain that it came close to killing him.
10“Speed Queen of the Great Lakes”
Few disasters are as well documented as the Eastland. There’s hardly room for any speculation. We have many pretty postcards of its early years as the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes.” There’s also hundreds of photographs taken only minutes after it capsized, where the blurred shapes of panicked passengers dot the river’s dirty water. There are just as many photos of the rescue of the living and the recovery of the dead, and the heroic actions of professionals and volunteers alike.
Despite all this, the story of the Eastland can’t seem to gain traction in America’s cultural memory. I’ve written two fairly lengthy articles on the Eastland and in both cases, the most common response is I never heard about this.
11The Eastland dominated national newspapers for weeks.
Today, it has been largely forgotten. The Titanic disaster is far more famous, with 1500 dead, but that was in the middle of the Atlantic, in freezing water over two miles deep. The Eastland Disaster occurred in water no deeper than half a school bus and within spitting distance of safety.
Nicknames of this Chicago disaster also belittle its significance: The Forgotten Titanic. The Blue-Collar Titanic. Big Bill’s Big Disaster (an insult to Chicago’s then-mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, who was in the San Francisco that fateful day). That kind of comparison would be insulting for any close relatives of survivors. It implied that while the Eastland was bad, it was NO Titanic.
12Why has the Eastland faded?
I’ve lived in Chicagoland my entire life and first heard of the Eastland in 2010, when I was 30, and only because I happened to stumble across it while researching the Titanic for a teaching lesson. Since then, I’ve told the story of the Eastland a hundred times and written two articles on it, and that experience has taught me a cold, hard truth: people don’t know about the Eastland and, worse than that, I think they don’t want to know.
It’s not callousness or a direct denial of reality as it is self-preservation. The events of that day were so meaningless, so chaotic, and so nightmarish that the story itself is a traumatic burden. It’s the same reason why we study Anne Frank in high school rather than firsthand accounts of Auschwitz-Birkenau, or why we spend more time studying the Underground Railroad instead of the horrors of the Middle Passage. It hurts less.
Consider: how the hell can we admire a sunset when we’ve seen a lifeless little girl yanked like sodden leaves from the Chicago River? How can we care about an upcoming Thor movie when we learn toppling furniture pounded bodies into the thick scum of the Chicago River bed like tent stakes? How can we talk CrossFit after learning 22 entire families, mother, father, and children, vanished in those terrible minutes?
13Their generous sacrifice.
Again, for the sake of self-preservation, a reader might balance these terrible images by admiring the heroic cooperation of thousands of bystanders, many of whom risked their own lives to save passengers. Police, firefighters, divers, doctors, and the army of volunteers that worked themselves to exhaustion that day and the next day and the next day and the next day. Their generous sacrifice restores our peace of mind. A sacrifice, I should add, these professionals still pay today: they witness terrible things so we don’t have to.
I have a response to this balance, or more truthfully, to this desperate attempt to find meaning in loss. My response wouldn’t provide any peace of mind. If it were my child or brother or wife or mother lost in the Eastland that day 107 years ago, I would respond: Dead children don’t give a damn about your peace of mind.
14Want to Know More?
A poignant symbol of the disaster: a toy bear found wallowing alone in the river.