Claude Walker | Bicentennial-By-Buttons

The Eastland Disaster, as explained by historian Mario Camozzi in The Eastland Water Spirits:

Professor Mario Camozzi was already in high gear, explaining the background to a very young reporter. “Western Electric was a huge employer. Their Hawthorne Works factory - out there in Cicero - sprawling. Geez, couple hundred acres. Thousands of workers - plenty of them women - on vast assembly lines. Makin’ telegraph equipment, phones, electric fans, the first electric dishwashers. Whole armies of European immigrants. Six-day weeks makin’ widgets on the line. Long days, dark rooms. So, yeah, Miss, this outing was important to them.”

“Yeah, Western Electric had been doin’ it for years, but it was growing in popularity. Five, six thousand people. More employees were bringing their extended families. Some folks say the company pushed workers too hard to buy tickets for these excursions, that foremen had quotas, I dunno. Gotta give the company credit. Out at Hawthorne, they organized sports leagues: football, tennis, men’s and women’s softball. Geez, all sorts of clubs: gun clubs, chess clubs, cooking clubs. Concerts in the company bandshell performed by employee orchestras, choirs, jazz bands. Free night classes for workers, ahead of its time. Built team spirit. They gave bennies most companies weren’t giving then, 1915, including, ironically, death benefits to survivors. But still, people were goin’ blind and lame in often dangerous conditions.”

"...the typical passenger that day was single, mid-twenties, first or second generation European immigrant. This event had a reputation. A lot of young single folks lookin’ for love, and this was a better place than the factory floor. Plenty of romances were spawned at the company picnic. There were dance bands on the boats. At the picnic, there were all sorts of contests - tango, sack-racing, tug-of-war - to facilitate interaction. And there was no shortage of romantic hideaways far from prying eyes over in Michigan City.”


“Some people called the ship ‘cranky’, ‘snake-bit’. It grounded twice in Lake Erie, hit a Cleveland breakwater. In 1903, just a block from here, it rammed and swamped a tug. In 1904, it began to list dangerously in the harbor, then again in 1909 and 1912. It had a queasy reputation of making passengers, well, puke their guts out,” Mario continued. “Maybe bad design, top-heavy. Maybe shoddy construction by cost-cutting shipbuilders...”


“...the double-deck Wacker Drive wasn’t here yet. This whole stretch was teeming with fresh markets: meat, produce, fish, even oysters. Almost all of these buildings ya see now weren’t here except for that big reddish-brown building with the tower, the Reid Murdoch Building, as it was known then. That served as a temporary morgue that morning. Hundreds of corpses waiting to be identified."


“The ship had started listing 45 minutes before. Back and forth from right to left, and back again. The Captain tried to right it, but it wouldn’t straighten up. Maybe a malfunction of the huge ballast tanks at the bottom of the ship, mighta been stuck or clogged with mud or who knows. The passengers had mostly boarded and thought the to-and-fro shifting was great fun, part of the show. The crew asked people to move to the center, but a large crowd was lingering on the River side. First time some had ever seen the Chicago River. And some say a boat with a movie camera mounted on it was chugging by, a novelty that attracted the crowd.

“The Eastland listed one last awful time. Water rushed into cargo bay doors, flooding the lowest deck, making it even less stable. Then it slowly rolled on to its side, trapping hundreds below and throwing even more into toxic cold water.”


“Thousands of people were on the docks that day, some to watch the picnic-goers off, some going to work on a weekday morning. When ship flipped, many unsung heroes stripped off their shoes and dove into the rancid water, such as 18-year old Reggie Bowles - the ‘Human Frog’ - who rescued many struggling victims and recovered the bodies of too many to count. Now, some of the luckier passengers had crawled on to the hull of the Eastland, so there were hundreds of stunned people standing around, some slipping into the water off the slippery steel ship.

"One boat - the Kenosha - was already moored next to the Eastland, preparing to tow the behemoth away from the dock. When the ship capsized, the Kenosha’s captain maneuvered it to serve as a bridge for those people on the hull to walk back to the dock. Some crew member who was actually thinkin’ fetched coal ash to spread on the hull to give people traction, to stop people from slippin’ into to the drink.”

“And can you imagine the final thoughts and emotions of those trapped inside, below deck? The walls instantly become the ceilings, cold water gushing in, screams and panic in total darkness. Horrible, geez. They had to cut through the hull of the Eastland - against the Captain’s insistent wishes - to get to some of the victims, some alive, most dead.

"Bodies were taken to the Reid Murdoch Building directly across from the capsized ship, and to a building which now houses a popular nightclub, and to the National Guard’s 2nd Regiment Armory, which later became Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios…”


“Yeah, I’ve heard stories about scams, too. Geez, who knows? This was Chicago, every man, woman and child has some sorta hustle going. I wouldn’t be surprised. But there are also credible reports of heroic efforts by undertakers and funeral parlor operators to accommodate the deadliest day in the City’s history.

"Think of how many funerals were held in a single week. Some cemeteries, like Bohemian National, conducted a hundred burials of Eastland victims. One church by Hawthorne Works - Saint Mary of Czestosowa - held a funeral Mass for 29 of its parishioners, all at once, white coffins stacked up by the altar. On July 28th, some 30 Masses were said in Catholic churches in Cicero, Berwyn, Chicago’s West Side.

"Hey, this wasn’t a time of civil war or epidemic. Here were 844 families and friends on their way to a nice outing on the Lake, nothin’ to fear, a rare day off with the family. Geez, such vulnerable victims: little kids, recent immigrants, oldsters...”


“The City’s leaders rallied around a relief effort. The Mayor, Red Cross, business leaders, even Western Electric kicked in. About 75K went to funerals. On top of their standard death benefit to survivors - which was unusual back then - Western Electric gave $200 to survivors. They offered free inoculations against typhoid to employees who went into the toxic water that day. They gave preferential hiring treatment to relatives of deceased employees. The Red Cross issued monthly checks to widows. The proceeds from a ballgame played on July 29 at Weegham Park - now the friendly confines of Wrigley Field - went to help the relief effort. The steamship company gave nothing. Not a penny, geez, can ya believe that?”


“After the capsizing, the ship lay on its side there in the River for three weeks, an awful reminder of an awful day,” Mario told a young radio talk-show host whose segment topic this morning was “Whatever Happened to the Eastland?” “The ship looked beat-up, pathetic,” Mario said, sipping from a “Brunch with Bria” mug.

“The gaping holes cut in the hull for the rescue, the smear of the coal ashes which were strewn on it to give the passengers on the hull a walkway to terra firma. Birds had crapped all over it, broken windows, algae…And it was still there, at the very dock were it flipped and killed all those people. A daily reminder of horror and stupidity,” Mario was warming up.

“The ship’s owners weren’t in any hurry to move the carcass, so the City pressed them under the so-called Wreck Act, which required owners to move anything obstructing a navigable waterway. The Eastland was taking up half the River; it had to go. Once the salvage began, it took a crew of 32 men working 14-hour days for two weeks to close portholes, pump out the water, and seal the Eastland with canvas and zinc sheets.

“They cut off the Eastland’s distinctive funnels, masts and upper deck. The ship was stuck in two feet of muck at the bottom, though, plus the load of coal inside had shifted, and mud had seeped in. It wouldn’t budge. Divers laid a steel cable under it which was tied to a salvage ship and pontoon boat. After three days, the Eastland stood tall once again. A ‘floating morgue’ was on-hand and divers searched the area on which the ship had been laying for three weeks in search of human remains, but no more souls were found…”


Kenesaw Mountain was an ornery cuss as baseball czar and he was ornery in this matter, too. He slapped handcuffs on some of the Eastland’s crew. And later, his legal maneuvers led to the ship being put up for auction. The winning bid of $46,000 was made by the Illinois Naval Reserves - with some behind-the-scenes help from big-time Chicago investors - for its use as a training vessel. It was renovated into a gun-boat with $100,000 in Federal funds, renamed the ‘USS Wilmette’ in 1918, and for the next 25 years, it trained thousands of sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Base, just north of here.”

“No action in either World War, though it did sink a World War I German U-boat in a training mission. The next big highlight for the ship was in August of ’43, hosting FDR on a 10-day cruise with his War Council, during which the snake-bit ship ran aground! Can you believe it?”

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