Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Great Lake's Steamer Eastland Disaster - 1915

The priest stood on the dock and made the sign of the cross as the body came into view and his lips muttered:

"Ego te absolve a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris, ea Filli, et Spiriti Sancti, Amen! -- I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen!"

and so it went for the dead from the Steamer Eastland Disaster in Chicago in 1915 as they were pulled onto the dock.

Today is the 96th anniversary of a Chicago disaster that remains largely forgotten despite the attempts of a group dedicated to keeping its history alive

On Saturday, July 24th, 1915, the Western Electric Employee Association planned their annual picnic. They had chartered four vessels to take the estimated 7,000 employees, family and friends to Michigan City, Indiana (On Lake Michigan, Michigan City, Indiana is fewer than 60 miles from downtown Chicago). One of the vessels, The Eastland, was filled to capacity (2,408 passengers and 72 crew members) and when people begin to move to one side of the vessel it simply tilted over onto it's side and sink in Chicago harbor killing 835 of them.

Well over half of the victims were single and a large percentage female. These were young, energetic factory workers. Married couples on board the Eastland were generally in their early twenties, with one or two children.

Passengers began boarding the Eastland on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets around 6.30 a.m., and by 7:10, the ship had reached its capacity. The ship was packed, with many passengers standing on the open upper decks, and began to list slightly to the port side (away from the wharf). The crew attempted to stabilize the ship by admitting water to its ballast tanks, but to little avail. Sometime in the next 15 minutes, a number of passengers rushed to the port side, and at 7:28, the Eastland lurched sharply to port and then rolled completely onto its side, coming to rest on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet below the surface. Many other passengers had already moved below decks on this relatively cool and damp morning to warm up before the departure. Consequently, hundreds were trapped inside by the water and the sudden rollover; others were crushed by heavy furniture, including pianos, bookcases, and tables. Although the ship was only 20 feet from the wharf, and in spite of the quick response by the crew of a nearby vessel, the Kenosha, which came alongside the hull to allow those stranded on the capsized vessel to leap to safety, a total of 844 passengers and four crew members died in the disaster. Many were young women and children.

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 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 Western Electric Hawthorne Works suffered greatly as many who died were worked in this plant. The entire plant closed for funeral services on Tuesday and Wednesday. In addition, the Bell System called for a day of mourning later that week, with all but essential employees excused from work to attend memorial services in cities across the United States. The top executives of the company attended a service as a group in Chicago. In late August, nearly a month after the catastrophe, Western Electric began hiring to replace those who had perished.

Most of the dead were taken to the armory building on Washington Boulevard during the disaster. This building later became Harpo Studios (Harpo Studios is located at 1058 West Washington Blvd) the production company owned by Oprah Winfrey. It is told that the spirits from the Eastland still haunt the building and many who work there claim that the ghosts of the perished passengers are still restless in the new studios. According to reports, many employees have had strange encounters that cannot be explained, including the sighting of an apparition that has been dubbed the “Gray Lady”. In addition, staff members hear whispering voices, the laughter of children, sobbing sounds, old-time music, the clinking of phantom glasses and marching of invisible footsteps. The footsteps (which sound as though they belong to a large group) are frequently heard on the lobby staircase and nearby doors often slam shut without assistance. A large number of the staff members believe this to be a very haunted place!

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