The Forgotten Eastland Disaster and the Ghosts Left Behind For Oprah

Eastland Disaster One of Nation's Worst

On This Date In History: The  Eastland was a steamboat on the Chicago River in the early 20th century that was built with known engineering flaws. But, they used it for ferrying passengers from the city to picnic sites on Lake Michigan.  It was designed to hold 650 people. On This Date In 1915, some 7000 employees of the Western Electric Company gathered on the dock along the north side of the Chicago River between LaSalle and Clark streets to board 5 steamers.  The Eastland was known as “the speed queen of the Great Lakes” and the folks from Western Electric, along with their friends and families,  were to be taken on that Saturday morning to Michigan City Indiana.   Now, in 1913, the Eastland was retrofitted to hold 2500 people, but a naval architect that very same year said that “unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.” Nevertheless, the boat remained in service and it is estimated that at least 2500 boarded the vessel and perhaps more. There is suspicion that a large group of the passengers got to one side of the boat to pose for a picture. Other stories claim the passengers crowded together to watch a fist fight or look at a passing boat.  With the big weight shift, an engineer opened one of the ballast tanks but instead of stablizing the boat, it capsized right along the dock.  Over 800 bodies were eventually taken to the Second Regiment Armory, which served as the morgue. 

 The “Eastland Disaster”  has become obscured in the American conscience perhaps due to the role of the United States Congrss in the events of July 24, 1915.    The ultimate cause of the disaster was the retrofit done in 1913 which left the ship top heavy.  Ironically, the retrofit was partially done so the steamship company could be in compliance with the federal Seamen’s Act of 1915.  The Seamen’s Act (formally known as the Act to Promote the Welfare of American Seamen in the Merchant Marine of the United States) was sponsored by progressive Republican Robert La Follette and was a quick reaction to the Titanic disaster of April 1912 in which it was determined that there were not enough lifeboats on the giant luxury liner. 

Some of the Victims

So, Congress decided that they would include in a law designed to aid the plight of sailors, a provision that required all American ships to have a full complement of lifeboats and rafts to support every passenger.  The law was very short sighted though because Great Lakes ships like the Eastland, had a much shallower draft than ocean going vessels.   It is argued by Stephen Cox in The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions that additional lifeboats on the Titanic would not have saved more lives because the crew would not have had enough time to lower them away.  In the case of the Eastland, it is certainly the case that the extra lifeboats did nothing to prevent the loss of life but instead may have been part of the cause for the loss of life.  By simply adding more lifeboats, the ship became even more top-heavy and therefore more unstable.  Without the extra lifeboats, it is possible that the Eastland would never have capsized.  And then entrepreneurs would have been prevented from issuing postcards of images from the disaster scene.

Passengers Walking Across the Doomed Ship and an Adjacent Tug

Several investigations were begun in relation to the disaster but ultimately those were taken over by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was known for his authoritariain rule and later for his role as commissioner of Major League Baseball.  Under the rule of Landis, grand jury testimony was never published and the findings of the grand jury have never surfaced.   Hence, the exact reason for the disaster may never be known.  Numerous lawsuits were filed to the US Circuit Court of Appeals but most were tossed by the court as it deemed the owners blameless.  It could be that the reason that the court held the owners blameless is because the catalyst of the disaster may have been the law passed by the United States Congress.  The court could have recognized that the owners were simply following the mandate set forth by the Seaman’s Act of 1915.  Perhaps Robert La Follette should have been held liable for the poorly crafted, short sighted bill.

The Eastland Disaster represents the largest loss of human life in a single event in the United States during the 20th century.  In terms of shipping disasters, the death toll was only topped by the Titanic and the Sultana.  With all of those bodies, officials in Chicago needed a large building for a makeshift morgue.  Initially, the Reid-Murdoch building adjacent to the site was utilized to house the bodies before the Second Regiment Armory building on West Washington Blvd.  was set up as the morgue.  In the late 20th century, the old armory building had been renovated and was incorporated into a production studio.  Today, that building is the home of Harpo Studios and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Some of the employees of the studio have reported encounters in the building and claim that it is haunted by the ghosts of the Eastland Disaster!   So, if you go to see Oprah you may want to consult the Ghost Busters.  No such worries for the USS Eastland.  It was raised and then later renovated and served as the USS Wilmette which was a gunboat used to patrol US waters during World War II and thereafter.  In 1946, the Wilmette was sold for scrap at the auction price of $2500.

SPC Severe Weather Outlook Saturday July 24 2010

SPC Severe Outlook Sunday July 25 2010

Weather Bottom Line:  One more day of excessive heat and humidty.   As I mentioned yesterday, it’s pretty tough to get the mercury to budge to 100 when there are dewpoints in the low 70’s.  Friday’s official high was 96 at the airport and not the forecast 99 of the weather channel.  I suspect that the highs other than the airport were probably a click or two lower for most people.  But…while high moisture content limits the maximum temperatures, it also elevates the heat index.  So, look for a high today of 96 or so but  a heat index probably close to 110.  A cold front sagging down will increse the prospects for rain and t’storms perhaps as early as Saturday night.  But, certainly by Sunday we will see an end to the latest brief heat wave but also will have an increase in the possibility of strong storms.  After that, we will be cooler but will be less stable.  Most long range forecasts have rain chances in the scattered to isolated range after Sunday but, as mentioned in the previous post, I think that at least some of the moisture from the otherwise useless remnant of Tropical Storm Bonnie makes its way around the ridge and perhaps into the Tennessee and Ohio Vallies.  We’ll see how it shakes out.


One Response

  1. I don’t think it’s tunnel vision or obsession. Everywhere I turn these days I see connections to the BP/DWH debacle.

    The Titanic sinking is one such link. After the incident, her owners took advantage of the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 to argue their case that their financial liability should be limited to around $95,000 – the value of the only thing which remained – the lifeboats and assorted related equipment. Transocean cited the same law in an attempt to limit their own liability in the sinking of Deepwater Horizon.

    And of course, the tendency of lawmakers to respond to events by passing ill-considered laws is something we can depend on. It’s happening now, as bills are being introduced to give power to the EPA, Mineral Management, etc. to do things they already had the power to do, but didn’t.

    Very interesting post. I especially enjoyed the photo of the diver. After hurricane Ike divers were ubiquitous here, helping to raise boats. It’s always amazing to see how occupations have changed and developed over the years.

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