Saturday, 8 August 2015

SS Eastland disaster: An unequaled disaster

July 24 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of the Eastland. The Eastland was, without question, the greatest disaster of all Great Lakes shipwrecks with anywhere from 800 to 1,100 casualties, although recent historians estimate approximately 844 deaths.

Source material for the tragedy of the Eastland is abundant. One cannot name any histories of the Great Lakes that do not mention the Eastland and do not recognize it as the greatest of tragedies on the Great Lakes.

For once in our accountings of Great Lakes shipwrecks, the weather, the waves or collisions were not responsible for the wreck of the Eastland.

In fact, according to Mark Bourrie’s “Many a Midnight Ship,” the seeds for the Eastland disaster were planted as she was under construction. This was a doomed ship before she saw any service. Subsequent attempts to improve the Eastland only contributed to her doomsday scenario.

The Eastland was built as a freight and passenger carrier. She was constructed at the Sidney Jenks shipyard and was launched in 1903. She was 265 feet long and had a breadth of 38 feet.

The Jenks shipyard, according to Bourrie, had very little experience building vessels that would carry passengers. That observation was also confirmed by Benjamin J. Shelak in “Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan,” who noted the four-deck passenger ship was the only one produced by this shipyard.

From the beginning the Eastland’s design flaws pointed to an eventual disaster. There were plenty of warnings. Ignored but significant were two very severe listing events in 1904 and in 1906.

The 1904 event involved a roll to starboard of approximately 20-25 degrees before the ship rolled back. 3,000 passengers were aboard and dozens complained to the newspapers and the ship owners. Both incidents resulted in mandates to reduce passenger loads.

The owners responded to the criticisms by taking out newspaper advertisements offering a reward of $5,000 to the person who could demonstrate the Eastland was unsafe. In so doing, the owners ignored the warnings of marine engineer William Wood who had worked on the Eastland and was aware of problems with the ship’s equilibrium.

Early in the day of July 24, 1915, all people could think about was the beautiful day on Lake Michigan and how fortunate they and their families would be to ride across the blue waters of Lake Michigan to the beaches near Michigan City, Indiana.

The Western Electric Co. had arranged an excursion for its employees aboard the Eastland. The company subsidy enabled their workers to purchase tickets for 75 cents.

Historical accounts, including Dwight Boyer’s “True Tales of the Great Lakes,” document numerous complaints by workers that they felt pressured by possible job loss if they did not purchase tickets. These complaints were probably well-founded, but it appears the vast majority of passengers were truly looking forward to a beautiful day with their families on a beautiful lake.

As the Eastland had her lines slipped and was under tow by a tug, she immediately began to list badly and then tipped over in the river. Hundreds were thrown from the decks to their deaths. Hundreds more were simply crushed on the river bottom by the big ship now lying on its side. Hundreds more drowned as they were trapped below the waterline.

Nothing could express the horror of the day’s events better than the many photographs found in Boyer’s book, of the faces of the rescuers and survivors as they struggled to find more bodies. The nightmarish events were accentuated by the bodies of little children, still in their Sunday clothes, being carried off to makeshift morgues.

The tipping over of the Eastland and the events leading up to the disaster suggested serious problems with metacentric height, essentially the ship’s center of gravity and the equilibrium between the distribution of weight onboard. In other words, on a flawed ship like the Eastland, the weight shift by passengers moving, in mass from one side of the ship to the other, might well be enough for the ship to lose equilibrium.

But let’s not blame the passengers. They were hardworking families from tight knit ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago. They were workers, looking forward to a beautiful day’s excursion with their families on Lake Michigan, a break from the toils and tedium of the workplace.

They were human beings who paid the ultimate price for the dishonesty, the greed, and the willful ignorance of the ship owners and their enablers, the corrupt bureaucrats.

That price amounted to the greatest loss of life in a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes, a loss that has never been approached by any subsequent shipwreck in the past 100 years.

Given the circumstances, there is every reason to believe the death toll of the Eastland will never be equaled again.

Saturday 8 August 2015


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