Tuesday, July 24, 2007

July 24

On this date in 1915, the S.S. Eastland capsized in the Chicago River with 2500 passengers, a third of whom drowned in a mere 20 feet of water. Most of the dead were employees and family members of employees who worked for the Western Electric Company, which was sponsoring a Saturday picnic on Michigan Island, Indiana. The 845 lives lost that morning represent the greatest American disaster of the 20th century.

A tour vessel owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship company, the Eastland had displayed chronic listing problems since being commissioned 13 years before. Ironically, safety legislation passed after the Titanic disaster worsened the ship’s stability problems by requiring that all vessels -- including Great Lakes steamships -- be fitted with a full complement of lifeboats. When the picnic-goers boarded on July 24, 1915, many of them gathered on the starboard side to bid farewell; hundreds of others, taking shelter from the day’s wind and drizzle, descended below deck. As the ship lurched suddenly onto its side, everyone below the deck was trapped. Although a few managed to escape, most did not.

Harlan Babcock, who worked for the Chicago Herald and witnessed the event, described it years later as one of the worst moments of his life.
Never to my dying day shall I forget the supreme horror of that moment. Men, women and children, who a moment before had been laughing and shouting messages to one another on board the Eastland and to friends on shore, were hurled by the hundreds into the Chicago River.

As the vessel top-heavily careened on its side, screams and wails, sobs and pitiful prayers came from those on the upper deck. They were hurled off like so many ants being brushed from a table.

The boat went over so quickly that scores who were sitting in chairs on deck did not have time to rise but were shot into the river. In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Infants floated about like corks.

Cries of 'Help' from those in the water filled the air. Many sank instantly. Others turned white, lifting imploring faces toward the panic-stricken crowd on the nearby Clark Street Bridge and piers. But before help could reach them, they too sank.

I was chilled by the harvest of death.
Among those harvested that morning were Edward Bartlett, a 55-year-old bartender; Louise Schmidt and Frank Selig, both 19 years old and engaged to be married; the entire family of George and Adelle Sindelar, including their five children; Henry Thyer and his 9-year-old daughter Emily; and James William Holdsworth, a 68-year-old machinist who became the Eastland’s oldest victim. Mary Braitsch, one of the more than 1600 survivors, lost her entire family -- husband John, an electrical toolmaker, her son Frederick (9) and daughters Anna (17), Gertrude (11), Hattie (7) and Marie (5 months).

Over the years, stories accumulated about the lucky ones who for one reason or another were not on board when disaster struck. Sam Dewbray and his wife were among the many passengers who never boarded the Eastland. They were planting lilac bushes and arrived late. Herman and Elsie Francke, a young married couple, disembarked shortly before the ship capsized. Elsie, who was feeling severe nausea, turned out to be pregnant. Edward Peternell, who worked for the Western Electrical Company, bailed out on the picnic at the last minute to meet his girlfriend, a young woman named Susan Jordan. His brother Joseph, who did not have a date, boarded the Eastland and perished.