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The Eastland Disaster

Thousands of horrified onlookers witnessed Chicago's most deadly disaster on the morning of July 24, 1915. Warehouse workers along the Chicago River shouted, "Look out, she's tipping!" Suddenly the fully-loaded passenger ship Eastland began her slow roll into infamy, killing 844 of the more than 2,500 passengers.

This installment of Chicago Stories features underwater reenactment footage, graphic pictures taken moments after the ship rolled over, and interviews with Libby Hruby of Cicero, one of the last remaining survivors.

It began as a leisurely boat ride to a summer picnic across the lake. The Western Electric Company of Hawthorne (now Cicero) had chartered the Eastland and four other boats to take employees to Michigan City, Indiana for a gala day of food, parades and sporting events. Josephine Polivka and her sisters wore white summer dresses as they walked toward the docks. The parents of seven-year-old Willie Novotny dressed their son in a new suit and took a streetcar to the Clark Street dock. George Halas, who would later become one of the founders of the National Football League and coach the Chicago Bears, worked at "The Western" as a summer hire and played on company sports teams.

All were heading toward the Eastland, a slender steamer built for speed.

The luxury steamship called 'The Greyhound of the Lakes' also had another reputation: one of being unstable and prone to listing from side to side. Changes in maritime law after the Titanic disaster in 1912 required the Eastland to carry more lifeboats. Steamboat inspectors were persuaded to increase passenger capacity just before the picnic, a way to perhaps make up for a dismal summer of small crowds on the excursion boat. All of this combined to make the Eastland even more top-heavy than before. In the estimation of current U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Eric Christensen, "The Eastland was an accident waiting to happen."

Chicagoan Gretchen Krohn described the scene dockside: "Up the slippery wet side canvas was spread that those carrying out the bodies might bring out their gruesome freight at a dog trot and thus empty the overturned basketful of human beings more quickly. All of the bodies carried past were so rigid that poles to carry them seemed superfluous. And the pitiful shortness of most of them! Children, and yet more children. And when it wasn't a child, it was a young girl of 18 or so."

Agony and ache drew a double line of grieving relatives at the Second Regiment Armory on Sangamon Street. There, hundreds of bodies lay in rows waiting for a relative to reach down, lift a sheet and identify a loved one who had drowned or had been suffocated in the crush of the crowd below decks. Twenty-two entire families were wiped out.

Despite litigation that lasted 20 years, none of the crew served any prison time or paid any fine. Years later, painful memories remained. Rosemary Pietrzak of Cicero said of her great uncle, "Frank never forgot the sight of all those babies floating on the water. He lost his faith in God that day."

(The Eastland itself was renamed the Wilmette in 1920 and refitted as a naval training vessel, enduring until she was broken up for scrap in 1947.)

Despite the immense loss of life involved, little attention has been given to this story, compared with other disasters of lesser magnitude.

Eastland Disaster Historical Society

For a wealth of online material concerning the Eastland Disaster, we recommend that you visit the website of:

Eastland Disaster Historical Society
PO Box 2013
Arlington Heights, IL 60006-2013
1-877-865-6295 (office)
1-877-865-6295 (fax)

Among the resources on the site are amazing and intriguing personal accounts that have been handed down through families whose lives were affected by the disaster. You can view artifacts such as postcards, photos, newspaper articles, and items of a personal nature. And see how the Eastland compared to the Titanic.

The nonprofit Eastland Disaster Historical Society was created in 1998 by Ted Wachholz, his wife Barbara, her sister, Susan Decker, and their mother, Jean Decker. This Arlington Heights family has dedicated themselves to reviving and preserving the memory of the Eastland.
(Susan and Barbara's grandmother was a 13-year-old survivor of the disaster.)

Excerpts of Comments by Ted Wachholz, Eastland Disaster Historical Society
The reputation of the Eastland was that of being a cranky, unstable, top-heavy ship. It was pretty well-known publicly that it really wasn't the cleverest boat to be on board.

But the Eastland as a matter of fact had been used the prior year without incident for the Western Electric employee picnic. Without a doubt, the Eastland was the slickest, neatest, most glamorous ship at that time, sailing on the Great Lakes. What a great part of your picnic it would be to offer your employees the opportunity to sail on this magnificent excursion steamer.

There had been a couple of modifications made since the previous year. They added several lifeboats and life rafts to the top deck of the Eastland which increased the weight, making the ship even more top-heavy and unstable in the water. That same year, they also laid several tons of concrete which was done to shore up some of the rotting wood deck and floors. So the Eastland was different in 1915 for the picnic then it was in 1914.

The Chief Engineer was the one responsible for the ballast system and managing that and it was standard practice for the ballast to be emptied prior to being brought to the water for boarding. Once boarded and underway, with the ship moving, it becomes more of a stable situation and I believe that the officers of the ship anticipated that once they boarded all the passengers for the picnic, once they got the ship on the way, they would be sailing along rather smoothly.

The Captain of the Eastland on 7/24/1915, was Harry Peterson and he had sailed the Eastland many times prior to that. He was an experienced captain.

From our research into history and the records that do exist, our opinion is that the Eastland tragedy, the tragedy of rolling into the river was not caused by one single event. There's many rumors, many theories, that the additional life craft that were added as a result of the Titanic incident was what caused the Eastland to roll over. We rather believe that it was more a culmination of many different things. The fact that the Eastland by design and construction was a very swift-in-the-water ship, and because of that it was not a very stable ship by design and construction. There were numerous modifications that were made to the Eastland over the course of the years it was in service and over the course of the prior weeks and months to the tragedy that made the ship even less stable in the water. You had a situation where you had thousands of people being jammed on to the Eastland likely overloading it, because of the passenger capacity, and you got a situation where you've got a water ballast system that possibly was defective, possibly was inadequate for what was going on that morning. It had some problems with managing that ballast system. So you had a series of things that pretty much all came together and culminated that morning. That could have been a week later, it could have been three weeks later, but it was that morning that they pretty much all came together and likely caused the Eastland to capsize.

We believe the Eastland disaster was a tragedy that was essentially waiting to happen. It wasn't a matter of if it would capsize at some point in time. It really was just a matter of when.

At least two trials resulted from the Eastland disaster. The first was a criminal trial which was held shortly after. The trial was held, the verdict was handed down that all parties were found to be not guilty. A large part of that is likely to do with the fact that the charges that were brought against the ship's owners, the captain and crew, various individuals and companies. The charges that were pressed against them was conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship and without a doubt no one conspired to cause the Eastland disaster. So the verdict had to be not guilty.

The original charges that were brought against the officers of the ship, the ship's owners and so forth were criminal negligence and manslaughter. Those charges were changed by the presiding Judge to conspiracy to operate a unsafe ship.

One more unfortunate aspect or outcome of the Eastland disaster was the resulting pay-out to the victims' families as a result of this tragedy. The civil trial is what determined the actual claims and the pay-out, the extent of the liability of the ship's owners and the crew. The civil trial was not conducted and concluded until 20 years later. At that time the court determined that the chief engineer was to blame. That was the only charge that stuck. From the civil lawsuit, the chief engineer was charged with criminal negligence and not maintaining the ballast system properly. Perhaps, one of the bigger tragedies as a result of the Eastland disaster was that there was virtually nothing paid out to the families as a result of the tragedy. The civil lawsuit limited the pay-outs to the victim's families to the value of the Eastland's hull which at that time was approximately $50,000. Prior to any money going to the victims' families, however, the owners of the Eastland had to pay other claims. They had to pay the company that raised the Eastland from the Chicago River which was approximately about $35,000. They had to pay the Cole company, the concession company. All these other creditors had to be paid prior to the victim's families.

So out of the $50,000 that was awarded by the civil lawsuit by the court, approximately $35,000 went to pay to raise the Eastland and the remaining $15,000 (again approximate) that was left went to pay other creditors, so essentially there was no money left to pay any of the victims' families.

The money that [the victim's families] received as far as compensation came from the Western Electric Company and the efforts of the City of Chicago and the Red Cross.

Shortly after the Eastland disaster, many hundreds of people participated in the rescue efforts. Nothing was planned, nothing was orchestrated. It was all spur of the moment, ad hoc. The police department showed up. The fire department was called. Many nurses and doctors came on the scene. Many people that had nothing to do with Western Electric or the picnic or the excursion that morning, people that were just in downtown Chicago that morning, came and assisted. Many people helped out in terms of jumping into the river to try and rescue people that had been thrown overboard.

[The fate of] the passengers of the Eastland was pretty much determined by where they were on the ship that morning. Those that had gathered on the port side of the Eastland, which would be the river side, were the ones that were pretty much doomed to death. When the ship rolled into the river it rolled to the port side. All those people within seconds found themselves in the bottom of the ship being buried by hundreds of other people, by pianos, by ice boxes, by crates, many different things slid to the port side of the Eastland. We do have a few accounts of people that were very fortunate in that they found themselves in a locker or some air-tight area of the ship, but if you were on the port side, there was virtually no chance for your survival.

If you were inside the Eastland, if you were on one of the middle decks your chances of survival depended upon where you were. If you were on the port side, chances are you did not survive. If you were on the starboard side, which as the ship rolled, was turned facing up, you were not completely underwater. You had at least a reasonably good chance of surviving.

Many of those that perished that morning on the Eastland actually did not drown. The coroner and the medical examiner and the doctors that worked with the victims in many of the cases said they actually suffocated. They attribute this largely to the fact that they were probably crushed to death. They were buried under the masses of the other people that landed on top of them, the debris. They had no opportunity to continue breathing, so they actually did not drown, they actually suffocated.

There likely was no one very famous on the ship that day. We have no records that show there was anyone of notoriety that was aboard the Eastland that day. We do have a documented account that stated that Mr. George Halas was going to attend the Western Electric picnic that morning. He had tickets. He played as a part of the sports teams. He was a summer hire while he was going to college and he worked at Western Electric and he had every plan to be at the picnic. [But] he was late in arriving, so he actually did not board the Eastland and was not a part of the Eastland tragedy.

Additional Resources
A display of Eastland artifacts and photos from the David and Rose Nelson Collection may be seen at the Chicago Maritime Society, located at the Helix Building, 310 S. Racine, 6th Floor.

Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic by George W. Hilton Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

About the Program Producers
Chicago Stories -- The Eastland Disaster was written and produced by Wild Chicago producer Harvey Moshman and WGN reporter Chuck Coppola. Moshman and Coppola have collaborated on several other broadcast projects, including the news feature Mysteries of Lake Michigan, which was recently honored with an Emmy award.

"We began work on The Eastland Disaster before the events of September 11," says Moshman. "And although some viewers might not be in the mood to watch a documentary on Chicago's worst tragedy, we feel that this little-known story, however disturbing, is one worth telling."

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