- This article is about the ship, for other uses see Eastland (disambiguation).
The S.S. Eastland was a passenger ship based in Chicago and used for tours. On July 24, 1915, the ship rolled over while tied to a dock in the Chicago River, killing 845 passengers and crew.
The ship was commissioned in 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and built by the Jenks Ship Building Company. In April 1903, the ship was named by Mrs. David Reid of South Haven, Michigan. She received a prize of $10 and a one-season pass on the ship. The ship was christened in May, immediately before its inaugural voyage.
Early problemsThe ship soon proved to have design flaws making it susceptible to listing. In effect, it was too top-heavy—its center of gravity was too high, especially when passengers congregated en masse on the upper decks. In July 1903, a case of overcrowding caused the Eastland to list and water to flow up one of its gangplanks. The situation was quickly rectified, but was only the first of many incidents. Later in the month, the stern of the ship was damaged when it backed into the tugboat George W. Gardner. August 1906 saw another incident of listing, that resulted in the filing of complaints against the Chicago-South Haven Line, which had purchased the ship earlier that year.
Mutiny on the EastlandOn August 14, 1903, while on a cruise from Chicago to South Haven, the ship's firemen refused to stoke the fire, claiming that they had not received their potatoes for a meal. When they refused to return to the fire hole, Captain John Pereue ordered the six men arrested at gun point. Upon arrival in South Haven, the six men, Glenn Watson, Mike Davern, Frank La Plarte, Edward Fleming, Mike Smith, and William Madden, were taken to the town jail. Two other firemen, George Lippen and Benjamin Myers, stoked the fires until the ship reached harbor. Shortly after the mutiny, Pereue was replaced.
The Eastland Disaster
On July 24, 1915, the Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take employees from Chicago's Western Electric Company to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. This was a major event in the lives of the workers, many of whom could not take holidays. Many of the passengers on the Eastland were Czech ("Bohemian") immigrants from Cicero, Illinois.
In 1915, the new federal Seaman's Act had been passed because of the RMS Titanic disaster. This required retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on the Eastland as on many other passenger vessels. Although the lifeboats mandated by this act were said to have the potential to cause many Great Lakes boats to capsize, it was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. The Eastland was already so top-heavy that it had special restrictions concerning the number of passengers that could be carried. The additional weight of the new lifeboats made the ship even more unstable than before. Prior to that, in June 1914, the Eastland had again changed hands, this time bought by the St. Joseph and Chicago Steamship Company, with Captain Harry Pedersen appointed the ship's master.
On the fateful morning, passengers began boarding the Eastland on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets around 6.30a.m., and by 7:10, the ship had reached its capacity of 2752 passengers. The ship was packed, with many passengers standing on the open upper decks, and began to list slightly to the port side (away from the wharf). The crew attempted to stabilize the ship by admitting water to its ballast tanks, but to little avail. Sometime in the next 15 minutes, perhaps owing to a passing canoe race on the river side of the ship, a number of passengers rushed to the port side, and at 7:28, the Eastland lurched sharply to port and then rolled completely onto its side, coming to rest on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet below the surface. Many other passengers had already moved belowdecks on this relatively cool and damp morning to warm up before the departure. Consequently, hundreds were trapped inside by the water and the sudden rollover; others were crushed by heavy furniture, including pianos, bookcases, and tables. Although the ship was only 20 feet from the wharf, and in spite of the quick response by the crew of a nearby vessel, the Kenosha, which came alongside the hull to allow those stranded on the capsized vessel to leap to safety, a total of 841 passengers and four crew members died in the disaster. Many were young women and children.
Writer Jack Woodford witnessed the disaster and gave a first-hand account to the Chicago newspaper Herald and Examiner. In his autobiography, Woodford writes:
- "And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn't believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy."
Many of the bodies were taken to a cold storage warehouse in the vicinity, which has since been transformed into Harpo Studios, the sound stage of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
One of the people who was scheduled to be on the Eastland was 20-year-old George Halas. Despite stories to the contrary, there is no reliable evidence that Jack Benny was on board the Eastland or scheduled to be on the excursion.
Second life as the U.S.S. Wilmette
After the Eastland was raised in October 1915, she was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and recommissioned as the USS Wilmette stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base. She was converted to a gunboat, renamed Wilmette on 20 February 1918, and commissioned on 20 September 1918 with Capt. William B. Wells in command. Commissioned late in World War I, Wilmette saw no combat service. She trained sailors and engaged in normal upkeep and repairs until placed in ordinary at Chicago on 9 July 1919, retaining a 10-man caretaker crew on board. On 29 June 1920 the gunboat was returned to full commission, with Captain Edward A. Evers, USNRF, in command.
On June 7, 1921, the Wilmette was given the task of sinking the UC-97, a German U-Boat captured during World War I. The guns of the Wilmette were manned by Gunner's Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in World War I, and Gunner's Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo in the conflict. For the remainder of her 25-year career, the gunboat served as a training ship for naval reservists in the 9th, 10th, and 11th Naval Districts. She made voyages along the shores of the Great Lakes carrying trainees assigned to her from the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Wilmette remained in commission, carrying out her reserve training mission until she was placed "out of commission, in service," on 15 February 1940.
Designated IX-29 on 17 February 1941, she resumed training duty at Chicago on 30 March 1942, preparing armed guard crews for duty manning the guns on armed merchantmen. That assignment continued until the end of World War II in Europe obviated measures to protect transatlantic merchant shipping from German U-boats. On 9 April 1945, she was returned to full commission for a brief interval. Wilmette was decommissioned on 28 November 1945, and her name was struck from the Navy list on 19 December 1945. In 1946, the Wilmette was offered up for sale. Finding no takers, on 31 October 1946, she was sold to the Hyman Michaels Co. for scrapping. She was demolished in 1947.
Jay Bonansinga, The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy, Citadel Press 2004. ISBN 0-8065-2628-9
George Hilton, Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic, Stanford University Press 1997. ISBN 0-8047-2801-1
Ted Wachholz, The Eastland Disaster, Arcadia Publishing 2005. ISBN 0-7385-3441-2
Eastland in Finnish: SS Eastland
Eastland in French: Eastland