Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The History of the SS Eastland Disaster in Chicago on July 24, 1915. 844 Dead. Very large photo album.

At 7:18 a.m. on July 24, 1915, the crew of the Great Lakes excursion steamer SS Eastland, known as the "Speed Queen of the Great Lakes," docked at the Clark Street Bridge on the south bank of the Chicago River with the bow facing east towards Lake Michigan, prepared for that morning's journey and hauled in its gangplank, forcing a tardy passenger to leap aboard from the wharf along the Chicago River.
Despite the cool, damp weather, 2,573 passengers and crew crowded aboard the Eastland, and the atmosphere was festive. The latecomer, E.W. Sladkey, headed to the promenade deck to join coworkers from the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works factory in Cicero.
The Eastland was one of five vessels chartered to carry Western Electric workers and their families on a day-long outing from downtown Chicago to a park 38 miles across Lake Michigan to the southeast. More than 7,000 tickets were sold.
Why old photographs' handwritten notations are reversed when printed.
Among those aboard the Eastland was George Sindelar, a Western Electric foreman, with his wife and five children. James Novotny, a company cabinetmaker, accompanied his wife and their two children. Anna Quinn, 22, and her neighbor and fellow Western Electric clerk Caroline Homolka, 16, had chosen their outfits carefully, for this was the social event of the year for many of the young workers—not only a rare Saturday break in the manufacturing and assembling telephone equipment, but also an opportunity to meet other eligible singles.

The Eastland was the first boat scheduled to leave, and employees had been encouraged to get there early. By a few minutes after 7 a.m., men, women, and children were boarding at 50 per minute, with two federal inspectors keeping careful count, per standard practice. The Eastland was licensed to carry 2,500 passengers plus crew. As a steady drizzle began to fall, many women, especially those with young children, took refuge below decks. In the main cabin, a band played for dancing; on the upper deck, passengers jostled to find seats or leaned against the railing, calling out to arriving friends.
As the Eastland filled with passengers between 7:10 and 7:15 a.m., it began to list to port, away from the wharf. The movement didn't alarm the partygoers, but it caught the attention of the harbormaster and some other observers on land. However, by the time Sladkey made his last-minute leap, the 275-foot-long boat had righted itself, if only briefly.
At 7:23, it listed even further to port. Water poured through the open gangways into the engine room. Realizing what was about to happen, the crew scrambled up a ladder to the main deck. 
At 7:28 a.m., the Eastland was listed to a 45-degree angle. The piano on the promenade deck rolled to the port wall, almost crushing two women; a refrigerator slid to port, pinning a woman or two beneath it. Water poured into open portholes in the cabins below deck. The most deadly shipwreck in Great Lakes history.
Few of the passengers boarding that day noticed that the Eastland carried a full complement of lifeboats, life rafts, and life preservers. It was in compliance with the law. And that created a severe hazard.

The 1912 sinking of the Titanic gave rise to a "lifeboats-for-all" movement among international marine safety officials. In the United States, Congress passed a bill requiring lifeboats to accommodate 75 percent of a vessel's passengers. In March of 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed what became known as the LaFollette Seaman's Act.

During the debate over the bill, the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company general manager had warned that some Great Lakes vessels, with their shallow drafts, "would turn 'turtle' if you attempted to navigate them with this additional weight on the upper decks." Too few legislators listened.  

By July of 1915, the Eastland, which had been designed to carry six lifeboats, was carrying 11 lifeboats, 37 life rafts (about 1,100 pounds each), and enough life jackets (about six pounds apiece) for all 2,570 passengers and crew. Most were stowed on the upper decks. No tests were conducted to determine how the additional weight affected the boat's stability—even though it already had a troubled history.

The Eastland was built in 1902 to carry 500 people for lake excursions and to haul produce on the return trips to Chicago. The boat had no keel, was top-heavy, and relied on poorly designed ballast tanks in the hold to keep it upright. Repeated modifications increased the vessel's speed and passenger capacity—and made it less stable.

"It was said of her that she behaved like a bicycle, being unstable when loading or unloading but stable when underway," wrote transportation historian and economist George W. Hilton, whose 1995 book, Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic, provides a meticulous investigation. Safety inspectors focused only on the Eastland's performance while underway and the boat routinely was certified as safe.

In July 1904, the boat nearly capsized with 3,000 people aboard. Two years later, it listed heavily with 2,530 passengers on board. The Eastland soon developed a reputation as unsafe, a "hoodoo boat" in the slang of the day. "The passengers appeared to recognize the potential dangers of the ship better than the management or the inspectors did," Hilton wrote.

Indeed, an official of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company, which bought the Eastland for $150,000 in 1914, testified at a coroner's inquest a few days after the accident, "I didn't know much about the boat except that we got it at a bargain. All I do is sign blank checks."

Critical to a boat's stability is what is known as its metacentric height. Floating objects are like an upside-down pendulum, with a center of gravity and the ability to roll, or heel, to either side before righting themselves. Its metacentric height is the distance between fully upright and the maximum heel—the point beyond which it will capsize.

Referring to the Eastland, Hilton wrote: "For such a ship, where the distribution of passengers was highly variable, normal practice would have been to provide a metacentric height of two to four feet, fully loaded."

Changes made to the Eastland before July 24 had reduced its metacentric height to four inches.

Within two minutes after it listed 45 degrees to port, it rolled over, as reporter Carl Sandburg wrote for the International Socialist Review, "like a dead jungle monster shot through the heart."

By 7:30 a.m., the Eastland was lying on its side in 20 feet of murky water, still tied to the dock. The vessel rolled so quickly that there was no time to launch the lifesaving equipment. As the boat settled on its side, many passengers simply climbed over the starboard railing and walked safely across the exposed hull, never even getting their feet wet. Sladkey was one of them. So was the Eastland's captain, Harry Pedersen. 

They were among the lucky ones.
"When the boat toppled on its side, those on the upper deck were hurled off like so many ants being brushed from a table," wrote Harlan Babcock, a reporter for the Chicago Herald. "In an instant, the river's surface was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks."

About 10,000 people were milling about the riverfront that day—grocery and poultry merchants, customers, and Western Electric workers waiting to board other ships. Horrified onlookers raced to the rescue, some jumping into the river. (According to one account, a man contemplating suicide at the river's edge jumped in and began saving lives.) Others threw whatever they could grab to provide flotation for those struggling in the water, including boards, ladders and wooden chicken crates.
Some crates struck passengers in the water, knocking them out and putting them under. Parents clutched children and disappeared together beneath the brown water—or lost their grip and watched their children sink out of sight. "God, the screaming was terrible; it's ringing in my ears yet," a warehouse worker told a reporter.
On her way to the outing, Helen Repa, a Western Electric nurse, heard the screaming from blocks away. The trolley she was riding in came to a halt in traffic. When a mounted policeman told her an excursion boat had overturned, Repa assumed it was one of the boats chartered for the picnic. Dressed in her nurse's uniform, she hopped onto the rear step of a passing ambulance. "People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they covered the surface of the river," she would recall. "The screaming was the most horrible of all."
When she arrived at the riverfront, Repa scrambled onto the Eastland's hull and saw passengers being hauled out of the river and others being dragged through portholes. Many were cut and bleeding. The injured were taken to a nearby hospital, which quickly was overwhelmed. Repa directed a hospital employee to telephone Marshall Field & Company, the department store, for 500 blankets. Then she called restaurants and asked for hot soup and coffee delivered to the hospital.

Repa sent the less injured home as survivors made it to the dock. "I would simply go out into the street, stop the first automobile that came along, load it up with people, and tell the owner or driver where to take them," she later wrote. "And not one driver said no."
By 8 a.m., almost all survivors had been pulled from the river. Then came the gruesome task of locating and removing bodies.

"The crowding and confusion were terrible," Repa wrote. Rescuers, emergency personnel, and curious onlookers flocked to the scene. By noon, divers and rescue workers finally reached bodies trapped underwater in the port-side cabins. "After that time, all the bodies that came up seemed to be women and children," Repa recalled.
Seven priests arrived to hear confessions or administer the last rites. "There was little work for them," one reporter wrote. "The results of the Eastland's somersault could be phrased in two words—living or dead."

Stretcher-bearers traversed the hull as bodies were lifted out. "I wondered dully why they waited for stretchers at all," wrote Gretchen Krohn in the New York Times. "All the bodies carried past were so rigid that poles to carry them by seemed superfluous, and the pitiful shortness of most of them." Sometimes, she continued, "they had to put two bodies on the same stretcher. Death had so tightened that final parting embrace." Because of a shortage of ambulances, American Express Company trucks were enlisted to transport bodies.
As news of the disaster spread rapidly through the city, families of Western Electric workers now feared the worst. Young Blanche Homolka and Alice Quinn, whose older sisters had left early that morning in high spirits, waited for hours at a streetcar stop, watching as passengers disembarked, their clothing muddy and disheveled. They waited in vain; Caroline Homolka and Anna Quinn were among the dead.

As the casualties mounted, the nearby Second Regiment Armory was converted to a morgue. Corpses were placed in rows of 85 as the identification process began. Just before midnight, the public was admitted, 20 at a time, to look for family members. The morbidly curious elbowed their way in, along with some thieves who stole jewelry from the bodies.
When Chicagoans awoke on Sunday, the magnitude of the disaster was nowhere more apparent than in the close-knit Polish, Czech and Hungarian communities near the Hawthorne Works in Cicero. The house was draped in black crepe, and families sat in mourning.

Just 10 weeks earlier, the Lusitania had been torpedoed and sunk, with a death toll of 785 passengers. In 1912, 829 passengers died aboard the Titanic (plus 694 crew members). Both of those disasters took place on the high seas.

After the Eastland rolled, 844 passengers died on a sluggish urban river 20 feet from the dock. Seventy percent of them were under the age of 25.

An estimated 500,000 people arrived to view the disaster scene, crowding onto bridges and the river's edge. Boat owners charged 10 or 15 cents to ferry the curious past. Newspapers around the country gave the story front-page coverage for days.

On Wednesday, July 28, Chicago was a city of funerals. So many were scheduled that there were not enough hearses, and Marshall Field & Company provided 39 trucks. Fifty-two gravediggers, working 12 hours daily, couldn't meet the demand. Nearly 150 graves had to be dug at the Bohemian National Cemetery alone. By day's end, almost 700 Eastland victims had been buried.

Among them were the seven members of the Sindelar family: George, the Western Electric foreman; his wife, Josephine, and their five children, ages 3 to 15. Their white caskets arrived at the service stacked precariously on the back of a Model T Ford.

By July 29, all the bodies lying in the armory morgue had been claimed except one, a boy identified only as Number 396, who was nicknamed "Little Feller" by police and morgue workers. The body was taken to a funeral home, where two children recognized him as their friend Willie Novotny, age 7. He had lain unclaimed because his parents—James, the cabinetmaker, and his mother, Agnes, had died on the Eastland along with his 9-year-old sister, Mamie.

When she took the authorities a new pair of brown knickerbockers, Novotny's grandmother confirmed the identification. "If it's Willie, he's got pants like these," she said. "It was a new suit he went to the picnic in, and two pairs of pants came with it. These are the others."

"'Little Feller' now has a name," reported the Chicago Daily Tribune.

When the Novotnys were buried on July 31, more than 5,000 people attended. The funeral procession stretched more than a mile.

Affixing blame for the accident began immediately. Eastland Captain Harry Pedersen, chief engineer Joseph Erickson and other crewmembers were taken into custody on Saturday to protect them from the angry crowd that had gathered at the scene.

Within three days of the accident, seven inquiries were underway. Cook County officials asserted their jurisdiction immediately. After interviewing witnesses and crewmembers, County Attorney Maclay Hoyne told reporters: "The United States [Steamboat] Inspection Service is directly responsible for this disaster. Now is the time to inspect the inspectors. Chicago... should demand that and nothing else."

U.S. Commerce Secretary William C. Redfield, dispatched to Chicago by President Wilson, seized the Eastland, enlisting the help of U.S. District Judge (and future major-league baseball commissioner) Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in whose courtroom federal proceedings would be heard.

Despite the haste, it would take 24 years to conclude litigation related to the Eastland disaster.
In the end, blame was pinned largely on Erickson, the chief engineer, for mismanaging the ballast tanks in the hold to the right of the Eastland before it capsized. Erickson, who initially was represented by Clarence Darrow, died as the proceedings dragged on. That made him—in the view of Hilton, the historian who analyzed thousands of pages of maritime and legal documents about the Eastland disaster—a convenient fall guy.

Although evidence strongly suggested that Pedersen had been negligent, he was not prosecuted. Nor were officers of the steamship company. All criminal charges were dropped, and the owners avoided any legal finding of negligence.

The blame, Hilton concluded, rested in a poorly designed boat that had been rendered top-heavy due to the post-Titanic safety measures.

Civil lawsuits to resolve over 800 wrongful-death claims dragged on for two decades. Maritime law limited liability to the value of the Eastland, set at $46,000. Legal suits were filed by the salvage company hired to tow the vessel from the accident scene, and the coal company that supplied fuel took precedence. In the end, victims and families received little or nothing.

Ted Wachholz, president of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, has a theory on why the Eastland looms so much smaller in the American memory than the Titanic or the Lusitania: "There wasn't anyone rich or famous on board," said Wachholz. "It was all hardworking, salt-of-the-earth immigrant families."

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.



  1. This is so fascinating and thorough. Thank you for honoring those who died by telling this history. The pictures are amazing. I am so curious how you get the pics and how do you decide what story to tell each day?

  2. A horrifying but fascinating account. And the irony of it-- that added safety measures as a result of the Titanic were considered to be the cause.

  3. This is so sad. When the Costa Concordia disaster happened, I wondered how so many people could die so close to land. This interesting though painful story enlightened me on the things that could happen, even worse and more tragically.

  4. Excellent piece Neil! I knew "of" the story but not such detail. One thing that stood out right away to me before getting into the article was the ship dimensions. Seemed very tall, narrow and long to me. Especially to be boarded like that in only 20 feet of water. Then I got to the part about the legislated life-safety boats, rafts and vests and that pretty much convinced me on what happened.

  5. Very interesting though tragic history. Thanks for sharing this. The photos tell their story. I really never new of this heart wrenching event. May all the victims rest in the peace of God.


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