New documentary of Eastland disaster

One hundred years and one day after the steamship Eastland rolled onto its side while still tied to the pier of the Chicago River at the Clark Street Bridge killing 844 picnic-goers in what remains Chicago’s greatest loss of a life in a single day, a new documentary aired about the disaster aired on Chicago’s PBS station. The Eastland disaster took the lives of 844 people, most of them women and children. The Great Chicago Fire killed 300, but the former fell down the memory hole even in Chicago while the latter has become an iconic watershed moment in city history. 

Producers Harvey Moshman and Chuck Coppola have engaged the subject before, producing a one-hour documentary, The Eastland Disaster, in 2001. The 2015 discovery of long-lost footage of the catastrophe inspired Moshman and Coppola to delve once more into the events of July 24th, 1915. This treatment goes into more depth, featuring new and archival interviews with witnesses, survivors, descendants and historians, extensive research into the aftermath and CGI-enhanced recreations of how the disaster took place.

The Eastland was built in 1903 by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan, which specialized in freight ships. Cargo is loaded evenly and stays still at the bottom of a ship’s hold. Even a top-heavy vessel will remain relatively stable with a belly full of cargo and proper water ballast. Passengers are not so predictable. They move around and spread out, and the whole reason the Eastland was so top-heavy in the first place was that it had been built with bulky upper decks to accommodate large crowds of vacationers and day-trippers. Ballast can’t counter the constantly shifting weight of moving passengers. Eastland frequently listed and took on water when carrying half as many passengers as were on board on the day of the disaster. It had listed so badly to port on a 1912 voyage that the crew only managed to keep it from capsizing by herding all the passengers to the starboard side.

On July 24th, 1915, the steamship was even more top-heavy, loaded with extra life boats and rafts on the upper deck. The Seaman’s Act requiring sufficient lifesaving craft for every passenger would go into effect at the end of the year and by its terms the Eastland would go from a legal capacity of 2,000 passengers to 1,200. A rainy summer had resulted in very poor ticket sales in June and July of 1915 — on Jun 15th there were a grand total of 41 passengers on the excursion — and the ship’s owner, the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co., was keen to jack the capacity way up to recoup some of their losses. Just two weeks before the Western Electric picnic, they managed to pile enough life boats onto the upper deck to get approved to carry 2,500 passengers and 75 crew. Stability tests were optional at this time, so inspector Robert Reed simply counted the seats available on the life boats and certified the Eastland for that number of passengers on July 10th. 

Exactly two weeks later, the Eastland, now loaded with 33 extra tons of life boats, rafts and new concrete decking to replace old rotten wood, took on its first load of 2,500 passengers. To raise the gangplank and make boarding easier and faster, Eastland‘s Captain Harry Pederson had a standing order that the ballast tanks be emptied, a practice he engaged in despite warnings from naval architects that the perpetually listing Eastland‘s tanks must always be full to keep it balanced. This choice had unbearably tragic consequences by destabilizing the ship all the more and ensuring the highest possible body count. 

A huge crowd of 7,000 employees and family members of the Western Electric company waited elbow-to-elbow on the docks for the five steamers engaged to take them across Lake Michigan on their fifth annual company picnic. The Eastland was the first to load up. Men, women and children flocked on board, many crowded in the hull to avoid the drizzle of the misty Chicago morning, many more seeking some breathing room, river views and a good time on dance floor accompanied by live piano music on the upper decks.

The ship began to list. Then it listed some more. Then it listed to the other side, ever at a steeper incline. With its dock lines still attached, the Eastland capsized, rolling all the way over on the river side. Hundreds tumbled into the river. With barely any room to spread out in the short river berth, they fell on top of each other and desperately pulled people down in their attempts to reach the surface. Anybody in the hull on the river side was trapped, destined to die of suffocation, blunt trauma and trampling before the water even reached them. 

From Nurse Helen Repa’s heartbreaking account of the day and how she gave aid to the victims at the scene of the disaster and at the nearest emergency hospital:

I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything they could reach—at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all.

With the ship capsized and thousands of people struggling for their lives, many hundreds of them trapped inside the ship, suffocating under the weight of furniture, debris and other passengers, Pederson, instead of aiding in the rescue of the men, women and children he’d help doom to a monstrous death, tried to stop steel workers from using their acetylene torches to cut holes in the hull. “Stop it,” he yelled. “You’ll ruin the ship.” The steel workers had to waste precious time arguing their way past him.

The captain and five crewmen were arrested. Captain Pederson had to dodge an angry mob when he was released from custody. State and Federal indictments against Pederson, the Eastland‘s chief engineer Joseph Erickson, officials of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co. and the inspector, Robert Reed. They were charged with conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship and put on trial. The famous Clarence Darrow was their defense attorney. He argued that the ship had rolled because it struck a hidden pylon under the water. Total fabrication, of course, and everyone knew it. The defendants were all acquitted.

A civil suit was lodged by the heirs of the victims. Only the chief engineer was adjudicated guilty of negligence. The cap on damages was the value of the ship’s hull — $45,000 — and the creditors got to take their payment first. By the time the salvagers, coal suppliers and the rest had been paid, there wasn’t a cent left for the families. The St. Joseph Co. went out of business. Pederson retired to a farm. William Hull, vice president of the company, fled Chicago to avoid prosecution and became a banker in St. Joseph, Michigan. (Extradition laws were different in 1915, and people could not be compelled to return to Chicago for trial even though they lived there when the crime took place and had deliberately left the jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.) No one served time in prison or even paid a fine.

In the teens, Chicago had a thriving film industry. There were three newsreel companies — Tribune Selig, Mutual, Universal — all of which had cameras and crews on the scene within minutes of the Eastland‘s capsizing. Films of the disaster was distributed to 40 other cities and around the world. It could be seen in practically any city in the Midwest except for the city where the tragedy took place. Newsreel footage was banned in Chicago. The mayor’s office decided the death and devastation would be too horrific for Chicagoans to watch.

Literally a century would pass before footage of the disaster was seen in Chicago thanks to University of Illinois Ph.D. candidate Jeff Nichols’ discovery of surviving newsreel clips in the Europeana database. The first time it was broadcast in a public theater in Chicago was at a preview showing of the new documentary a few weeks ago.

Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day aired on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW on July 25th and several times since then. It may be available On Demand in that market, but it won’t be distributed to PBS stations nationwide until 2020. It is available for digital download ($9.95) right now and the DVD ($19.95) will be available later this month.