“You can’t imagine the full horror of it”

“You can’t imagine the full horror of it”

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It was a festive, joyous atmosphere at the Clark Street
docks on the south bank of the Chicago River on the morning of July 24, 1915,
as a group of employees and families from the Western Electric Company in
Joliet prepared to board the steamship Eastland for an excursion across the
lake to Michigan City, Indiana. A band played lively music from the dock and
passengers looked forward to a day of fun and relaxation.

In such surroundings it was hard to imagine that the
assembly was just minutes away from the worst disaster in Illinois history.

Eastland had started off with a bad reputation as an
unstable ship; nearly capsizing in 1904 and having another close call in 1906;
but the ship’s owners had made adjustments which they believed would render the
vessel safe for large groups. They had even added more lifeboats to the deck
following the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier. The added lifeboats
theoretically made the ship safer, but they also allowed the ship to carry even
more passengers.

In all, there were five ships chartered for the voyage
across the lake that morning, carrying around 7000 people to the picnic, a
company tradition now in its fifth year. But the 275-foot long Eastland, with
her twin smokestacks, was the star. The “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes,” as
she was known, Eastland had been in service for just over a dozen years.

Even in the light rainfall, passengers began boarding around
6:30 a.m., and it wasn’t long before something seemed to be not quite right.
The ship began swaying side to side much more than was normal while alongside
the dock. Detecting a list to the starboard side, crew members began counter-flooding,
letting in water to ballast tanks on the opposite side of the ship in order to
restore some balance. Within minutes balance was restored, but then the ship
began listing to the port side.

In spite of this troubling development, the boarding of
passengers continued. By 7:10 there were 2500 people on board, full capacity
for the swaying ship. Each had paid $1 for their ticket, unless they had taken
advantage of a discount and purchased their ticket early for 75 cents. One
prospective passenger who arrived late and was denied a chance to board the
packed steamer was a young employee of Western Electric named
George Halas.

Just after 7:25 the ship’s crew began preparing to depart
the city for the company picnic in Michigan City. Excited passengers moved to
the ship’s rail to wave goodbye to friends and family on the dock below.

It was at this moment that disaster struck.

The shifting of most of the passengers to one side of the
already unstable ship caused a fatal imbalance in the weight aboard. Eastland
began to list, slowly at first, then dramatically faster. Captain Harry
Pedersen activated the ship’s alarm, but by then the danger was apparent to
all.

Dishes fell off shelves and shattered on the deck, a piano
broke free and slid across the ship, a refrigerator fell over. Panic suddenly
ripped through the crowd on deck as the ship swung over by 45 degrees. At 7:30
a.m., Eastland capsized and sank into the mud of the Chicago River just 12 feet
from shore.

“I shall never be able to forget what I saw,” recalled
survivor Helen Repa. “People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly
that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the
rest were floundering about, some clinging to a little raft that had floated
free, others clutching at anything they could reach – at bits of wood, at each
other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming
was the most horrible of all.”

The devastation was immediate. Trapped below deck in
darkened cabins suddenly turned upside down, hundreds, including 22 whole
families, drowned. Others who fell from the tilting deck were crushed as the
ship rolled over. The dead included 58 infants and children.

Rescuers raced into action, pulling survivors from the
20-feet of water and up onto the dock. Police and fire crews arrived within
minutes, as did the crews of nearby ships, but for many their efforts were too
late.

“You can’t imagine the full horror of it,” rescuer Joseph
Kuhlman said later. “I have never read nor seen such a sight.”

The nearby tugboat Kenosha, which was already secured to
Eastland to help move the steamer out into the lake, was now quickly lashed to
the wharf alongside Eastland in order to help escaping passengers reach the
dock. The crew of the nearby steamer Theodore Roosevelt, also chartered for the
excursion, began throwing their own life preservers to the victims struggling
in the water, while the ship’s lifeboats were lowered to render assistance.
These efforts succeeded in rescuing some of the passengers, but were largely
for naught.

In a matter of minutes, 844 people had been killed, a death
toll almost as high as the Chicago Fire and the Iroquois
Theater
tragedy combined. It was the worst loss of life of any disaster in
Illinois’ history.

Western Electric and the American Red Cross quickly moved
into comfort the survivors and those who had lost loved ones. Illinoisans from
all walks of life came together to help in any way they could. Stores alongside
the wharf provided coffee and blankets to shivering survivors as they were
pulled from the water. The nearby Reid, Murdoch and Company basement became a
temporary morgue.

Investigations were immediately convened, but they
ultimately found that the crew – who had mostly survived – had not acted
improperly and that there was nothing with which to charge the owners since the
ship had met all the regulations and passed all the inspections. Many culprits
were blamed for the sinking: an insufficient ballast system, a poor design that
made the narrow ship unsteady, even the extra lifeboats which were blamed for
making the ship top-heavy.

Regardless of its shortcomings, the ship’s owners were eager
to get the ship out of the mud. It was raised barely three weeks later. With
America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, the U.S. Navy needed training
ships, and Eastland’s owners were happy to offer their ship. It was purchased
by the Navy and rechristened USS Wilmette, going on to a successful career as a
training ship on the Great Lakes until 1945.

In 1998 the Eastland
Disaster Historical Society
was formed by the granddaughters of an Eastland
survivor to “create lasting legacies for the victims, survivors, heroes and anyone
affected by the tragedy.”

Through their efforts, the history of the disaster is
recalled more than a century later. The society combined with students from the
Illinois Math and Science Academy and the city and state historical societies
to post a marker near the site of the sinking.

It commemorates the 844 lives lost that morning in the worst
disaster in Illinois history.

 

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