I believe the original source of the problem was the placid river. Stained with plant decay, the south branch of the Black River – and its tributary, Eastman creek - begins by slipping quietly from Great Bear Lake, in west central Michigan.
The stream meanders northward through gently rolling woodlands before pausing at Breedsville, where a mill dam provides the only sense of drama in its course. Once the middle and north branches join the south branch the river abruptly jogs back south 3 miles before slipping quietly into Lake Michigan at the port of Southhaven.
In 1861 the channel at South Haven was dredged to a depth of six feet to accommodate lumber haulers, and lumber shipped through South Haven helped build the metropolis of Chicago. With the woodlands cleared, the land was converted to fruit orchards, to feed the newly built metropolis. To accommodate the fruit carriers, in 1867, a light house was built at the exit to the lake, and the channel at South Haven was dredged to a depth of twelve feet. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped there.Each summer at the turn of the century, steam ships would leave the docks at South Haven, their holds crammed with peaches, apples and blueberries. Not wanting to return empty, the shipping lines promoted South Haven as “The Catskills of the Midwest”.
By 1900 the returning ships were carrying 75,000 tourists a year to South Haven’s 215 hotels. The town boasted theatres, a casino, an amusement park and public gardens.
And for 12 years the S.S. Eastland, plied her trade between South Haven (and other ports around the rim of Lake Michigan) and docks on the Chicago River, merely one of a fleet of lake steamers, carry freight and tourists, and always carrying in their design the legacy of the quiet, un-dramatic and shallow Black River.The Eastland was built to fit the Black River. She was 265 feet long and only 28 feet wide. “Fully pumped out” she drew only 10 feet of water. Once christened in May of 1903, she quickly became the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes”, able to slice through the water at over 20 knots. Speed was profit because it allowed the Eastland to make two transits a day between Chicago and South Haven.
However, during her first summer on the lake, while carrying 3,000 passengers, the Eastland listed so badly that during the winter of 1904 ballast tanks and pumps were installed to control her wild swings. But no gauges were installed to measure the ballast. Worse, an extra deck and heavy air conditioning units were also added, making the Eastland’s narrow wedge shape even more top heavy. In 1906 her maximum passenger load was reduced again, to 2,400 souls.And then, in April of 1912, the Titanic sank. One thousand and five hundred people died because there were not enough life boats on board. In America the legislative response was the Seaman’s Act of 1915, requiring a life jacket and a seat aboard a life boat for every single passenger. Installed on the Eastland, the new life boats and rafts added 14 tons to the upper decks.
Shortly after three A.M., the twenty-fourth of July, 1915, the Eastland tied up at the “Chicago and South Haven wharf”, between Clark and LaSalle streets, along Whacker Drive in downtown Chicago. Directly across the river was the Reid Murdoch office building, with its distinctive clock tower, the office windows looking down on the river dock. The Eastland was scheduled this day to be part of a three ship excursion flotilla taking Western Electric employees to Michigan City, Indiana for a company picnic.
Shortly after six A.M., as the sun rose into the cool morning air above Lake Michigan, the Eastland’s ballast tanks were pumped empty. At 6:30 passengers began to board the Eastland; most moved directly below decks to get warm.Over the next half hour, as 50 passengers a minute boarded the Eastland, the ship began to list, first to starboard and then to port. Each time water was pumped into starboard and port side ballast tanks to right the vessel. At seven A.M. the tug boat Kanosha cast a bow line to the Eastland. Five minutes later the Eastland’s engines were started. At ten minutes after seven the gang plank was closed. The Eastland had on board her full compliment of passengers, 2,400 souls. At eighteen minutes after seven the operator of the Clark Street draw bridge informed the Captain of the Eastland that he was ready to raise the structure. The captain ordered the stern line cast off. At twenty minutes after seven minutes the ship began to list so strongly to port that water began to pour into the ship. The Captain ordered the engines stopped. A crewman hit an alarm whistle. At twenty-eight minutes after seven A.M. the Eastland rolled over onto her port side. Her bow was still tied to the dock. 845 passengers, men, women and children were trapped below decks and drowned in 20 feet of water 20 feet from the dock.Jack Woodford watched from an office building across the river. Years later he wrote in his biography; “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…lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.”Miss Ina Roseland told one of the Chicago newspapers, “My brother Karl and I were standing near the rail on a lower deck when the Eastland tipped over. I lost Karl as the boat carried me down, until I felt the muddy bottom….Then I began to rise...As I touched the slippery wall that was about me, my hand struck something soft…I screamed and felt myself fainting, but…(I) heard an answering shout. I could not believe my ears. It was my brother's voice. He told me to be brave; that he had come up in the state room next to me…."Several bodies, all of them women or little girls, would keep knocking against me, however much I tried to climb higher. Then I heard the hammering and cluttering as the men worked to cut away the plates. As a piece came away a little light filtered through and as I started a prayer of thankfulness, it was choked in my throat, for it fell on the upturned staring faces about me…Brother Karl was there urging them on as I was pulled outside.”
From another Chicago newspaper appeared this tidbit. “Joseph A. Forrester, who holds a Mississippi river master and pilot’s license, declared the Eastland never should have been used for passenger service. Forrester, who is visiting here and was early on the scene, continued: “There were not enough holds below the water line. The Eastland was built too high. When she started listing nothing on God’s earth could stop her, because there was more above water than below, which is contrary to all ideas of boat construction.”
The Chicago Daily Herald recorded the story of Charles Williams who was crossing the Clark Street Bridge when the Eastland rolled over. “"I leaped into the water and the first person that I reached was a man who was choking and crying for help. I swam to him and when I came up to him he threw his arms around my neck in a death grip."I knew that the only thing to do was to shake him off…I came up behind him and hit him in the neck. He became unconscious and I swam to shore with him, where spectators on the dock helped me get him out of the water. Next I pulled out a young lady dressed in a pink suit. A patrol boat then came along and a man on it yelled to me that a young lady had just gone down for the third time at a certain spot. I dived, got her and took her to shore, where she, too, was revived…"I swam to the Eastland and worked my way up on top of the hull, where I assisted four firemen in taking bodies out of apertures that had been chopped through several places. We took out at least fifty bodies, mostly women and children, although there were about a dozen men.”
The bodies pulled from the hulk of the Eastland were transported to a cold storage warehouse, which is now occupied by Harpo Studios, and contains the sound stage for the Oprah Winfrey Show. Six investigations were made into the Eastland disaster. No one was ever indicted, no one was ever convicted of a crime in this matter. A marker commemorating the Eastland disaster was not erected on the spot until 1989. The sinking of the Eastland remained the single worst civilian loss of life in American history until September 11, 2001.In 1915 a Coroner Juries’ inquest came to the conclusion that, “…the steamship Eastland was both improperly constructed for the service employed, and improperly loaded, operated and maintained…”. The jury recommended that, “…the state's attorney and grand jury investigate carefully the condition of the construction of this boat, to ascertain if there can be found legal methods by which those responsible can be held accountable.” Eventually it was decided there were none.
As if suspecting that this would be the case, the cornor's jury also observed that, “…the federal government system of permitting the construction of vessels for use by common carriers is unscientific and a menace to the public safety. There is not now nor has there ever been an inspection service maintained by the federal government for the purpose of determining the stability of boats offered for passenger service. It is the judgment of this jury that the present method of determining the passenger-carrying capacity of vessels is not founded on any proper basis.”
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