Saturday, 28 September 2013

Anecdote Saturday - SS Eastland

The SS Eastland was launched for the Michigan Steamship Company in 1903.  She was deployed for the South Haven, Chicago route and was known as the "Speed Queen of the Great Lakes". Initially used to transport fruit and 500 passengers, she was then sold on in 1914, to the St Joseph -Chicago Steamship Company of St Joseph, Michigan, where she was converted to exclusively passenger transport.

Roughly 2000 gross tonnes and powered by two triple expansion steam engines, fed by 4 boilers, the Eastland could generate 1750 shp operating through twin screws. The Eastland could fetch quite a dash (for the time) at 16.5 knots.

On 24 July, 1915, while berthed at a dock in the Chicago River, she rolled over killing 844 passengers and crew.  This became the greatest maritime disaster on the Great Lakes. The Eastland was salvaged after the disaster and continued a naval life under the name USS Wilmette, eventually being scrapped after the Second World War.

Much like the accusations levelled at the Waratah, the Eastland was alleged to have been top heavy, with a high metacenter. She tended to list and hang for a long time in the list, again, echoing witness accounts of the Waratah. In July 1903, when passengers congregated on the upper decks she listed to such a degree that water rushed up one of the gang planks. The crisis was brought under control but signalled the course of events that would lead to the disaster in 1915.

Again in 1906 there was an incident relating to excessive listing and complaints were filed against the Chicago South Haven Line.

There is an interesting story of mutiny relating the Eastland. Firemen refused to return to the hole to stoke the boilers claiming that they had not received their potatoes for a meal. The Captain, Pereue, had six of them arrested at gunpoint. Two poor sods were left to stoke the boilers to get the steamer back to harbour. The 6 men were jailed, but shortly afterwards Captain Pereue, was replaced.

July 24, 1915, the SS Eastland and two other steamers were chartered to take employees of the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.  Many were Czech immigrants who could not take holidays and this formed a major event in their lives.  200 died. Ironically due to the Titanic disaster and the lack of lifeboats, the new federal Seamen's Act required a more complete set of lifeboats for the Eastland which added to the top side weight.

By 7 am 24 July, the steamer had reached its capacity of 2572 passengers mostly congregating on the upper decks.  The steamer began to list away from the dock (port side), made worse by a number of passengers rushing to that side. Despite efforts to distribute water to the ballast tanks, the Eastland rolled completely over onto its side and sank to the bottom of the river in 20 ft of water. Those passengers who had moved below decks were either trapped or crushed. Despite a quick emergency response, 844 passengers and crew perished.

Writer Jack Woodford witnessed the disaster. In his autobiography, Woodford writes:

"And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. 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. I didn't believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy".

The President of the St Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company was indicted along with three of his officers for manslaughter by a grand jury, and in this case the cause was directly attributed to "conditions of instability".

No stability tests had been conducted on her and the head of the ship building company, Sidney Jenks was said to have remarked to Clarence Darrow (for the defence):

"I had no way of knowing the quantity of its business after it left our yards... No, I did not worry about the Eastland." Jenks testified that there was never an actual stability test of the ship, and stated that after tilting to an angle of 45 degrees at launching, " righted itself as straight as a church, satisfactorily demonstrating its stability."[11]

The original owners had ordered a fast steamer to carry 500 passengers and primarily fruit.  The conversion to an exclusively passenger liner with a capacity for 2500 passengers did not incur modifications or sea trials.

The court refused extradition, holding the evidence was too weak.  The court also reasoned that the Eastland "was operated for years and carried thousands safely", and that for this reason no one could say that the accused parties were unjustified in believing the ship seaworthy.[12]

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

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