Thousands of people were dockside on the morning of July 24 1915 when warehouse workers along the Chicago River began shouting "Look out, she's tipping." That began the slow roll and sinking of the SS Eastland and America's largest loss of life in a shipwreck even though she had not even set sail.
The 265' long passenger steamship was commissioned in 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and was built by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron MI. She was launched in May 1903 and she was quickly found to have design flaws while working her route from South Haven MI to Chicago IL. The ship was found to have the center of gravity too high and she was top heavy, both of which made her susceptible to listing, especially when passengers grouped together on the top decks.
In July 1903, one case over-crowding aboard the SS Eastland caused the ship to list so much that water ran up one of the gangplanks. Later in that same month, the stern was damaged when she backed into a tugboat. In 1905 she was sold to the Michigan Transportation Company and then in 1906, she was sold to the Lake Shore Navigation Company of Cleveland OH to work the Cleveland - Cedar Point route. In 1906 she suffered another episode of serious listing and complaints were filed against the company she had been purchased from.
The SS Eastland was sold again in 1909 to the Eastland Navigation Company and again in 1914 to the St Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company of St Joseph MI. While the ship was changing hands through the numerous purchases, she was kept on the same passenger routes between Cleveland and Cedar Point. On June 24 1915, The SS Eastland was chartered along with the Petosky, the Maywood, the Racine and the Theodore Roosevelt were chartered to take employees of Western Electric's Hawthorne Works in Cicero IL to a picnic in Michigan City IN. The Western Electric Employee Association planned the annual company picnics and had held one at the same location the previous year which had been a huge success.
The first telegraph company was begun by Samuel F B Morse in 1844 and companies sprang up all over the nation to run their own telegraph systems. By 1856, many of those small companies had been consolidated in one company, Western Union Company and they operated two facilities in Cleveland OH and Ottawa IL. In 1872 the company was reorganized after investing in a Chicago manufacturing plant and was renamed Western Electric and it still had strong ties financially with Western Union. They produced alarms, mimeograph pens and telegraph equipment and in 1882, after years of legal wrangling, Western Electric signed a deal to become the exclusive manufacturer of Bell telephones in the United States. In 1913, Western Electric had developed the high vacuum tube and the Chicago plant was moved from Chicago to a rural 110 acres on the outskirts of Chicago.
The plant was self sufficient and boasted of 100 buildings, it's own power plant, fire department, laundry, hospital, greenhouses, annual beauty pageant and brass band. The company also had it's own staff of trained nurses who made house calls as well as the "biggest little railway in the world" that transported raw materials and finished products around the plant. It became the only plant by 1914 and produced telephones, cable, every major telephone switching system and the equipment needed to operate it. The employees of Western Electric were a cross section of the ethnic cultures of the time and were either Eastern European immigrants or first generation Americans. The company picnic was not something many of the employees would have dreamed of planning since most did not even have vacations from work but a company as large and rich as Western Electric could plan it as a diversion for them.
The company had distributed seven thousand tickets to the company workers and their families which were free for children and seventy five cents for adults. There were no assignments for which ship people had to board but the Eastland and the Theodore Roosevelt were the newest, most elegant and first scheduled to leave that morning so they were expected to be full to capacity. The Eastland was known as the "Speed Queen of the Lakes" because of her 22 mile per hour cruising speed which was probably helped by her narrow, 36 foot width.
The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 had brought about significant changes in maritime law, one of which was the requirement that ships carry enough lifeboats and rafts for at least 75% of the passengers on board. This change had forced the owners of the Eastland to add three lifeboats and six rafts to the top deck of the already unstable ship on July 2 1915. The addition to the fourth deck added 14 to 15 tons of extra weight of the ship and the steamboat inspectors had been persuaded to increase the passenger capacity just before the picnic trip.
There were already about 5,000 people waiting dockside by 6:30 am and boarding on the Eastland began at 6:40 am. Within a minute, the ship began to list on the starboard side, which was dockside but that could easily be explained by the large number of people boarding. Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson ordered the port ballast tanks filled and the ship leveled out by 6:51. It was only a few minutes later when the ship began to list again but this time towards the port side and Erickson ordered the starboard ballast tanks to be partially filled. At 7:10 am the ship again began to list towards port at about 15 degrees, the port ballast tanks were emptied and the ship once again straightened out by 7:16 am. Within four minutes the ship was again listing towards port and water began to pour in through the lower deck openings.
By 7:23 the list had gotten so bad that the crew began requesting that the passengers move to the starboard side of the upper decks but by 7:27 the list had reached 25 to 30 degrees. Water was still pouring into the lower decks and loose items were being washed across the decks and a minute later the list had reached 45 degrees. The passengers began to panic then when furniture and appliances began to tear loose and slid across the decks. The SS Eastland continued to roll onto her port side and by 7:30 she lay on her side in 20 feet of water, still tied to the dock.
The Eastland had rolled over slowly enough that many passengers just climbed over the starboard railing and walked along the hull to safety. Those who were on the upper decks though were flung into the water and many others were trapped below decks or had been trampled in the panic. The thousands of people along the dockside sprung into action helping to pull people from the water, leading them to safety or tossed anything that would float into the water for those who were struggling to stay afloat in the water. People all along the dockside and in town turned out to help in whatever way they could.
One such person was 17 year old Reggie Bowles, the son of a Western Union wire chief. When he heard about the disaster in the Chicago River, he jumped on his motorbike and raced to the scene. Reggie had always been a strong swimmer since early childhood and he volunteered to swim into the wreck with an oxy-acetylene torch looking for victims that were trapped within. He brought more than 40 victims to the surface while diving the entire day and finally had to be forced to stop diving that night.
He had earned the nickname "Human Frog" from his diving that day but it forever changed his life. He contracted typhoid afterwards from all of the dirty water he had ingested during the dives. He enlisted in the National Guard during WWI and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel during WWII. He led a scattered life and by 1929, had been married four times and fathered several children. He died on April 28 1990.
|David Bowles, Reggie's grandson & M Cheatham|
By 8 am all of the survivors had been pulled from the river and the grim task of searching the ship for victims had begun. Passengers could be heard screaming within the ship and crews began cutting holes in the hull to try and reach them but sadly, most had drowned by the time the holes had been cut. The majority of victims that were pulled from the ship were women and children. Those victims that were not injured badly were sent home in an effort to try and clear the human congestion along the dockside that morning.
Borghild Bobbie" Aanstad had boarded the Eastland with her uncle Olaf, mother Marianne and her younger sister Solveig that morning. They boarded the ship and despite Marianne's concern about the stability of the ship, they settled in chairs on the cabin deck. The Aanstad family became trapped there as many others did when the Eastland overturned and managed to stay together for the eleven hours it took before they were rescued.
|clockwise: Olaf, Bobbie, Solveig & Marianne|
Solveig was separated from the other three accidently once they were pulled from the wreck and it was hours before they were able to find her. Marianne rarely spoke about the accident and continued to work as a cleaning lady afterwards, remarried in 1919 and died in 1966. Solveig never spoke of the accident while quietly raising a family in the Chicago area and died in 1989. Olaf had stayed on the site of the Eastland wreck, helping where ever he could until late in the evening. He received a medal of honor for saving numerous passengers that day. Afterwards he married and moved to the West Coast where he lived until his death in the 1960's.
|Bobbie with Susan & Barbara|
Bobbie Aanstad and her granddaughter's Susan Decker and Barbara Decker Wachholz formed the Eastland Historical Society in the hopes of preserving the memories of the thousands of people who were affected by the sinking of the Eastland that day. Bobbie seemed to be the only one of her family that bounced back from the tragedy that day and readily spoke about the events that transpired. The Historical Society hopes to expand people's interest and understanding of an event that was huge when it happened and has not been equalled fortunately to this day. Bobbie died on August 2 1991 and was believed to be one of the last people alive who had survived the sinking of the Eastland.
The Second Regiment Armory was established as a temporary morgue by that afternoon when the numbers of victims grew past a few hundred. The bodies were set out in rows of 85 and by midnight families who believed that they may have lost loved ones were admitted to make identifications. It took several days for all of the victims to be identified since 21 families had perished together and there was no one left in the immediate area to identify them.
Divers spent hours cutting holes into the hull of the ship and slowly making their way into the various decks looking for survivors and recovering bodies. The nation was stunned by the loss of life in a shipwreck that occurred while the ship was still tied up and sitting in about twenty feet of water.
The Eastland had 2,573 passengers and crew aboard her when she capsized dockside that day. She had been originally designed to carry 500 passengers and six lifeboats in 1902 but had been repeatedly modified in the later years. After the sinking of the Titanic, maritime laws changed and when she was loading that day to head off to the company picnic, she carried 11 lifeboats, 37 liferafts (about 1,100 lbs each) and enough life vests ( at six pounds apiece ) for every passenger aboard. Unfortunately these were mostly on the upper decks of a ship that was narrow, top heavy and had no keel.
The Lusitania had been torpedoed about two months before the Eastland accident with a loss of 785 passengers and the Titanic which had sunk in 1912 lost 829 passengers and 694 crewmembers. The Eastland saw the loss of 844 lives, not on the high seas but less than 30 feet from shore. It would take 52 gravediggers working 12 hour shifts to dig all of the graves that were needed to bury the dead.
The SS Eastland was repaired and raised on August 14 1915 and was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve. After extensive work she was renamed the USS Wilmette, converted to a gunboat and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station. She was used primarily as a training ship for reservists and stayed active until her decommissioning in 1945. In 1946 she was offered up for sale but there were no takers so she was sold for scrap which was completed in 1947.
Within three days of the accident, there were seven inquiries underway investigating the accident. Erickson took the brunt of the blame for the sinking for mismanaging the ballast tanks. Captain Pederson and the officers of the steamship company who had purchased the Eastland for a bargain of $150,00 were never prosecuted even though evidence seems to show that Pederson was negligent that day. The 800 civil lawsuits dragged on for almost two decades and in the end the victims and families received little or nothing. Maritime laws then limited the liability to the value of the ship which was placed at $46,000 and the claims from the salvage company hired to raise and tow the ship along with the coal company that supplied the fuel took precedence. In the end though, it seems that the laws that were put into practice following the sinking of the Titanic had led to the severe overloading of a ship that already had a questionable ability to stay level in the water.