A tragic shipwreck and the boat never left the dock.


The Eastland on a better day
[Photo from Detroit Publishing Company; fair use]

It was Saturday morning July 24, 1915. While light rain was falling, 7,000 joyous Chicagoans lined up at the docks between Lasalle and Clark streets. They were workers at the Western Electric Company, with their family and friends, preparing to board the boat that would take them 38 miles across Lake Michigan to the amusement park in Michigan City Indiana. Many had donned their Sunday best especially the single young men and women. It would be a glorious day of fun followed by a Sunday off work to rest up. A person might wonder; does it get any better than this?

A ticket for the boat ride and a day at the park was 75 cents purchased in advance and a dollar on the day of the event. This would be a big expense especially for a family, and there were many. A typical supervisor’s pay was 17 dollars a week. Boarding the Eastland, one of five boats in service for the event, would begin at 6:30 am for a 7:30 departure.

Passengers standing on the side of the boat. Note the ladies in long dresses and the men wearing a coat and tie. [Photo by Britannica; fair use]

At 6:41 am, as the passengers were streaming up the gangplank, the ship began listing to the starboard (right) side toward the dock. A crew member let water out of one of the ballast tanks to redistribute the weight and right the boat. By 7:25, after the boat had been righted several times, it began listing to the other side, away from the dock, reaching nearly 30 degrees when water began entering the ship. In less than five minutes, after several vain attempts to right the ship, it rolled on its left side while remaining tied to the dock. Doomed passengers spilled off the top deck into the water while others were trapped below deck.

On this day, 844 passengers drowned making it one of the worst disasters in American maritime history. Many victims were first generation citizens and 22 entire families perished in the tragedy. More passengers were lost than on the Titanic three years earlier but because of the number of crew lost the Titanic death toll was greater.

The Eastland built in 1902 was called “speed queen of the Great Lakes”. She also had a history of being unstable. On two recent occasions the boat had nearly capsized leading one passenger to take a train home rather than complete a round trip.

During a lengthy litigation process it was revealed that the boat had several lifeboats added and additional life preservers and rafts placed to comply with new rules invoked after the Titanic disaster. This added nearly 25 tons to the top decks, not a good thing for an already unstable vessel.

The famous attorney Clarence Darrow defended the owners who were cleared of any wrongdoing.

The 275-foot Eastland was raised from 20 feet of water in a month and sold to the Navy where she was refitted as a gunboat. The boat, renamed the Willmette, went into service too late for action in WW I. It was finally scrapped in 1945.

It is estimated there have been 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes with 30,000 mariners losing their life. One was made famous by song. The Edmund Fitzgerald went down during a November storm in Lake Superior near Whitefish Bay. The 730-foot ore carrier sank with the captain and 28 crew.

Better boat design and modern safety measures make it highly unlikely that something like could happen again on the Great Lakes.



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