On October 9, 1902, the Michigan Steamship Company, an investment company founded by Captain John Pereue, was created. The company's mission was to take advantage of the lack of a day and night ferry route across Lake Michigan, and a demand in Chicago, Illinois for fresh fruit from the western shores of Michigan. The company commissioned a steamship from the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan, and named it the Eastland. The ship was christened by Frances Stufflebeam (Captain Pereue's wife) on May 6, 1903 and started the routs from Chicago to South Haven, Michigan on July 18th.
The Eastland had problems with ballast and engine performance almost immediately. The ship would often bottom out on the sand bar outside of South Haven, causing damage to the ship's main propeller. The Eastland returned to Port Huron that same winter to be repaired in Jenks yard. An air conditioning unit was added to the configuration, as well as a repositioning of equipment in order to reduce drag.
While these modifications improved the Eastland's top speed, it reduced the overall stability of the ship. In 1904, a near disaster occurred a few miles out of South Haven Harbor. It was a hot day, and many of the 3000 passengers were on deck trying to stay cool. After clearing the South Haven sand bar, the ship listed, or tilted, to starboard about 10-15 degrees. After Captain Daity changed the ballast to correct the problem, the Eastland then listed to port about 20-25 degrees, nearly capsizing the ship. Water poured onto the deck, creating panic among the passengers. After the crew of the ship redistributed the passengers (a majority were on the starboard side of the ship), the deck returned to level, and the ship was able to continue the voyage.
Unfortunately, this incident occurred within full view of many residents in South Haven, who demanded that something be done to increase the safety of the ship. The Michigan Steamship Company reduced the capacity of the Eastland to 2800. After another similar incident happened again the next year, the company reduced capacity to 2500.
Between these incidents and the costs incurred by repairing the ship, the Michigan Steamship Company found itself in financial trouble. In 1907, the Lake Shore Navigation Company, based out of Cleveland, purchased the Eastland for $150000, and moved it to Lake Erie.
The Eastland began running a route from Cleveland to Cedar Point, a popular resort for the upper class of Ohio. The ship would also take passengers on night cruises in Lake Erie, the deck transformed into a dance floor, and lit up from stem to stern. The crew of Lake Erie freighters said that encountering the Eastland on a night cruise made them want to dive overboard and join the party.
The ship no longer made ferry trip during the night, so the cabins were removed in 1909. The main steam stack was also shortened, in an attempt to make the ship less top heavy. These adjustments did little to help, as the Eastland had another incident while loading passengers in Cleveland in 1912, as the ship listed 25 degrees. Many of these passengers decided not to make the return trip on the Eastland, opting to return to Cleveland by train.
After the sinking of the Titanic in early 1912, the public began to demand that passenger ships be equipped with a full compliment of lifeboats to give passengers a chance at survival. This dropped the capacity of the Eastland from 2200 to 2000, and began running in the red. A.A. Schantz, who managed the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company, argued that attaching these lifeboats to common steamships would make them more prone to capsizing.
The Eastland continued to lose more money, and was sold to the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company for $150000 in 1914. The company was looking for a larger ship to accommodate passengers. The ship returned to service in Lake Michigan on June 10, 1914.
The Western Electric Picnic
One of the first trips for the Eastland in 1914 was to transport employees of the Cicero, Illinois based Western Electric Company from docks in Chicago to a picnic area in Michigan City, Indiana. The Eastland was loaded to capacity, and easily made the trip across the lake and back. The trip was such a success that Western Electric again requested the Eastland for the trip to the 1915 picnic.
There were five ships chartered to make the trip to Michigan City the morning of July 24, 1915. The first to load would be the Eastland, followed by the Theodore Roosevelt, the Petoskey, the Maywood, the Racine, and the Rochester. As the Eastland and the Roosevelt were the newest and most elegant of the five ships, many Western Electric employees arrived early to board the nicer ships.
At 6:30 a.m., the Eastland began loading. By this time, nearly 5000 Western Electric employees had gathered by the ship's moorings on the south bank of the Chicago River, just west of the Clark Street Bridge. When the gangplanks were lowered, nearly all those on the pier rushed on board, trying to save seats for themselves and their families. As the passengers boarded, the ship began to list starboard. This is usual, as the weight of the boarding passengers is concentrated on the side on which they board. The chief engineer of the Eastland, Joseph Erickson, ordered that the ballast on the port side be filled slightly to compensate, and the ship leveled and then listed to the port side. Erickson once again compensated for the tilt, but as more passengers boarded the ship, the worse the list became. By 7:20, the Eastland had reached capacity, and most passengers made their way to the port side of the ship to observe the activities on the river. Water began seeping through the gangway holes on the port side, but no panic resulted from the passengers. In fact, may passengers began to laugh at the sharp tilt of the ship.
The crew began trying to move passengers from the port back to the starboard side of the ship, but many refused to give up seats they had claimed. By 7:25, the port list was 45 degrees, and the crew began to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Items on deck began to slide and crash into the railings on the port side, now creating a panic among the passengers.
At 7:30, the Eastland was on it's side.
Some passengers were lucky enough to climb over the starboard railing and found themselves standing on the starboard hull when the Eastland went over. The unfortunates were either stuck under the port hull, or were stranded inside the ship with no way to escape. A mass of people were stuck in the currents of the river, treading water and clinging to each other for dear life.
Because the Eastland capsized so quickly, there was no time to deploy lifeboats or to distribute life jackets. Many of the passengers who were on deck were unceremoniously dumped into the river. Many held on to whatever debris that they could find in order to stay afloat. Others were trapped under the water by the mass of bodies above and drowned. Nearby boats immediately began fishing people out of the river as quickly as was possible, and many onlookers jumped off the pier and began trying to bring people to shore. By 8:00, all survivors had been pulled out of the river.
Ashes were scattered across the starboard hull of the ship so that rescue workers would not slip off as they carried the dead and injured back to land. Workers with blowtorches tried to cut into the hull of the ship to rescue those trapped inside, but only a handful survived long enough to be rescued. Divers were then allowed into the river to retrieve the bodies.
Because the crew of the ship knew of the impending disaster precious minutes before the passengers, many of them were able to make it to safety before the ship fell into the river. In total, over 850 passengers and crewmen perished, the largest loss of life in the continental United States in the 20th century.
Makeshift morgues were set up in the area around the accident, with the central morgue set up at the Second Regiment Armory on Washington Boulevard. Marshall Field loaned all of his store's delivery carts in order to help transport bodies from the riverfront to the morgues. Victims were set up in rows, and on the evening of the 24th friends and families were allowed to come and identify their loved ones.
Because the Eastland was transporting passengers to an employee picnic, many brought their entire families along for the day. As a result, entire families died on the Eastland, and their bodies remained unclaimed for days.
As victims were identified, funeral services were arranged. Because many of the passengers were from the same neighborhoods around the Western Electric plants, many community churches soon found themselves struggling with the load. St. Mary's of Czestochowa Catholic Church in Cicero performed a single service for 29 members of their community. Temporary grave diggers were hired.
An investigation into the accident was immediately launched. A federal court quickly found that the crew of the Eastland, including Joseph Erickson, did nothing criminal on board the Eastland that day, and that the disaster was not a result of their actions. On August 7, 1935 the US District Court of Appeals found that the Eastland was seaworthy on July 24, 1915, and that the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company was not liable for any of the deaths resulting from the Eastland disaster. While many civil actions continued afterward, no other criminal suits were ever filed.
The Eastland was eventually sold to the US Navy, rechristened the USS Wilmette, and was used in training operations on Lake Michigan. The ship was eventually sold for scrap in 1946. A large historical marker to the Eastland is located at the corner of LaSalle and Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago.