Sunday, April 13, 2008
A Most Tragic Picnic
If you lived and worked in Chicago in the first quarter of the 20th century, the thought of a summertime picnic and wide open spaces would likely appeal to you acutely. Trading the hustle and bustle of the cramped city for an idyllic day of relaxation and enjoyment had to have been good for the soul. Knowing that one of these excursions was planned, and you were invited, would cause a great deal of anticipation.
For the Chicago area employees of the Western Electric Company this type of outing was an annual event looked forward to by employees and their families all year long. When the plans were announced for the 1915 picnic, the location chosen was Michigan City, Indiana. Michigan City was just across the lake from Chicago, and the attendees would get the added treat of a steamboat ferrying them to the event.
The chosen steamboat was the S.S. Eastland. The Eastland was large and luxurious with plenty of room for the passengers. They could spend the crossing watching the lake front grow smaller then larger, or they could spend it dancing to the music of the orchestra in the dance hall. A large crowd of 2500 employees and families boarded Eastland on the morning of July 24th to be ferried to the opposite shore.
The passenger capacity of the ship had been recently increased more than twofold, and fresh concrete had been poured into the deck timbers to support them. With the Titanic disaster so fresh in everyone’s minds, the addition of several lifeboats as a result of LaFollette’s Seaman’s Act was probably reassuring.
But a picnic for these hard working people was not to be. When the gangplanks were raised to begin the short journey, the Eastland leaned significantly to port. The festive crowd on the dance floor noticed the slant, and before they knew it the dance floor was sloped thirty degrees. As furniture, dishes and a piano hurtled across the floor toward them, some unfortunate passengers were crushed and killed outright.
At 7:28 AM, the S.S.Eastland simply tipped onto its side in the Chicago River, still at dock. Hundreds of passengers and crew were thrown into the river, and many were trapped inside and underneath. Ladies in the heavy layered dresses of the day were weighted down and drowned, and many did not know how to swim. Many, many children were onboard. Despite the heroics of several bystanders who dove into the river or found buoyant objects into the water for survivors to cling onto, the loss of life was considerable. It took days to recover all of the bodies which were taken to makeshift morgues for identification. In many cases all family members had been on board, leaving no one to make the identification.
The final count of the losses in the Eastland disaster showed that 844 people had died on that July morning. Of this number 472 were women, 290 were children and 82 men. The loss to the ship’s crew was four.
What went wrong? Seems that a combination of the doubling of the passenger capacity, the deck reinforcing concrete and the 10-14 tons of additional lifeboats put aboard to save lives had in fact changed the center of gravity of the ship. The Eastman became much too top heavy for the ballast of the ship to compensate for. Predictably, the owners and crew of the shipped were cleared of all criminal responsibility by a Chicago Grand Jury.
An interesting twist of a side note to this story surfaced while the divers were recovering bodies and working to prepare the hull for being turned upright. A diver named William Deneau discovered a crude, one man submarine on the bottom of the river. This sub was subsequently called the Foolkiller, and was complete with the skeleton of the submarine pilot and that of his dog. Deneau had it dredged up and displayed the sub and the bones on the South Side of Chicago for quite a while. To this day no one is sure of the builder, age, or who the pilot of the Foolkiller was.
But in Chicago you could see the pilot, sub and dog for the bargain price of a dime….
It has been pointed out to me by Adam Selzer from wierdchicagoblog.com that the Foolkiller was not discovered by Deneau during the rescue and recovy efforts, but serveral months afterward while laying cables. Thanks Adam.
Photo: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-064932. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.