SS Eastland

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This article is about the ship, for other uses see Eastland (disambiguation).
The SS Eastland docked
Name: Eastland
Owner: Michigan Steamship Company
Port of registry:  United States
Route: South Haven, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois route
Ordered: October 1902
Builder: Jenks Ship Building Company
Launched: 6 May 1903
Christened: May 1903 by Francis Elizabeth Stufflebeam
Maiden voyage: 16 July 1903
Nickname: "Speed queen of the Great Lakes"
Fate: Sold in 1905 to the Michigan Transportation Company
Name: Eastland
Owner: Michigan Transportation Company
Operator: Chicago-South Haven Line
Port of registry:  United States
Route: South Haven - Chicago route
Fate: Sold 5 August 1906 to the Lake Shore Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
Name: Eastland
Owner: Lake Shore Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio
Port of registry:  United States
Route: Cleveland-Cedar Point route
Fate: Sold in 1909 to the Eastland Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
Name: Eastland
Owner: Eastland Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
Port of registry:  United States
Route: Cleveland-Cedar Point route
Fate: Sold on June 1, 1914 to the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company of St. Joseph, Michigan
Name: Eastland
Owner: St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company of St. Joseph, Michigan
Port of registry:  United States
Route: St. Joseph, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois route
Fate: Raised after accident on October 1915 and sold at auction on 20 December 1915 to Captain Edward A. Evers. Sold on 21 November 1917 to the Illinois Naval Reserve.
Career (United States) 60px
Name: USS Wilmette
Acquired: 21 November 1917
Commissioned: 20 September 1918
Recommissioned: 29 June 1920
9 April 1945
Decommissioned: 9 July 1919
15 February 1940
28 November 1945
Renamed: Wilmette on 20 February 1918
Reclassified: Gunboat 1918
IX-29 on 17 February 1941
Struck: 19 December 1945
Honors and
40px World War I Victory Medal
(with Atlantic Fleet clasp)
40pxAmerican Defense Medal
(with Fleet clasp)
40px American Campaign Medal
40px World War II Victory Medal
Fate: Sold for scrap on 31 October 1946 to Hyman Michaels Company of Chicago, Illinois and scrapped. Scrapping completed in 1947.
General characteristics
Class and type: Passenger Ship
Type: Steamship
Tonnage: 1,961 gross
Displacement: 2,600 (estimated)
Length: 265 ft
Beam: 38 ft 2 in
Draft: 19 ft 6 in
Installed power: Two triple expansion steam engines
Four scotch boilers (coal fired)
1,750 shp
Propulsion: Two shafts
Speed: 16.5 knots
Capacity: As Eastland :
2752 passengers
Complement: As USS Wilmette :

As USS Wilmette :

  • Four 4 in guns
  • Two 3 in guns
  • Two 1-pdrs guns
Notes: Two funnels
Two masts

The S.S. Eastland was a passenger ship based in Chicago and used for tours. On 24 July 1915 the ship rolled over while tied to a dock in the Chicago River.[1] A total of 844 passengers and crew were killed in what was to become the largest loss of life disaster from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes.[1][2]

Following the disaster, the Eastland was salvaged and sold to the United States Navy. After restorations and modifications the Eastland was designated as a gunboat and renamed the USS Wilmette. She was used primarily as a training vessel on the Great Lakes and was scrapped following World War II.


The ship was commissioned in 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and built by the Jenks Ship Building Company. In April 1903, the ship was named by Mrs. David Reid of South Haven, Michigan. She received a prize of $10 and a one-season pass on the ship. The ship was christened in May, immediately before its inaugural voyage.

Ship history

Early problems

File:Eastland Christopher Columbus leaving Chicago ca1912.jpg
The Eastland leaving Chicago, at left from the stern, with the Christopher Columbus in the background. Her considerable height is evident

The ship soon proved to have design flaws making it susceptible to listing. In effect, it was too top-heavy—its center of gravity was too high, especially when passengers congregated en masse on the upper decks. In July 1903, a case of overcrowding caused the Eastland to list and water to flow up one of its gangplanks. The situation was quickly rectified, but was only the first of many incidents. Later in the month, the stern of the ship was damaged when it backed into the tugboat George W. Gardner. August 1906 saw another incident of listing, that resulted in the filing of complaints against the Chicago-South Haven Line, which had purchased the ship earlier that year.

Mutiny on the Eastland

On 14 August 1903, while on a cruise from Chicago to South Haven, some of the ship's firemen refused to stoke the fire for the ships boiler. They claimed that they had not received their potatoes for a meal.[3] When they refused to return to the fire hole, Captain John Pereue ordered the six men arrested at gun point. Firemen George Lippen and Benjamin Myers, who weren't a part of the group of six, stoked the fires until the ship reached harbor. Upon the ship's arrival in South Haven, the six men, Glenn Watson, Mike Davern, Frank La Plarte, Edward Fleming, Mike Smith, and William Madden, were taken to the town jail. Shortly after the mutiny Captain Pereue was replaced.[3]

The Eastland Disaster

On 24 July 1915, the Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take employees from Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. This was a major event in the lives of the workers, many of whom could not take holidays. Many of the passengers on the Eastland were Czech ("Bohemian") immigrants from Cicero, Illinois. The only surviving picture of the original church building of St. Mary of Częstochowa in Cicero is from the memorial mass commemorating the twenty-nine parishioners who lost their lives in the disaster.

Passengers being rescued from the hull of the Eastland by the tugboat Kenosha in the Chicago River
File:Eastland disaster port side.jpg
The Eastland being righted following the disaster

In 1915, the new federal Seaman's Act had been passed because of the RMS Titanic disaster. This required retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on the Eastland as on many other passenger vessels.[4] This additional weight, ironically, probably made the Eastland more dangerous and it worsened the already severe problem of being top heavy. Some argued that other Great Lakes ships would suffer from the same problem.[4] Nonetheless, it was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. The Eastland was already so top-heavy that it had special restrictions concerning the number of passengers that could be carried. Prior to that, in June 1914, the Eastland had again changed hands, this time bought by the St. Joseph and Chicago Steamship Company, with Captain Harry Pedersen appointed the ship's master.

On the fateful morning, 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 of 2752 passengers. 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, perhaps owing to a passing canoe race on the river side of the ship, 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 belowdecks 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.

Writer Jack Woodford witnessed the disaster and gave a first-hand account to the Herald and Examiner, a Chicago newspaper. 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."

Many of the bodies were taken to a cold storage warehouse in the vicinity, which has since been transformed into Harpo Studios, the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show.[5]

One of the people who was scheduled to be on the Eastland was 20-year-old George Halas. Despite stories to the contrary, there is no reliable evidence that Jack Benny was on board the Eastland or scheduled to be on the excursion; possibly the basis for this report was that the Eastland was a training vessel during World War I and Jack Benny received his training on the Great Lakes naval base, where the Eastland was stationed.

Second life as USS Wilmette

After the Eastland was raised on August 14, 1915, she was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and recommissioned as USS Wilmette stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base. She was converted to a gunboat, renamed Wilmette on 20 February 1918, and commissioned on 20 September 1918 with Captain William B. Wells in command.[6] Commissioned late in World War I, Wilmette saw no combat service. She trained sailors and engaged in normal upkeep and repairs until placed in ordinary at Chicago on 9 July 1919, retaining a 10-man caretaker crew on board. On 29 June 1920 the gunboat was returned to full commission, with Captain Edward A. Evers, Template:USNRF, in command.[6]

File:The USS Wilmette.jpg
The USS Wilmette circa 1918

On 7 June 1921, the Wilmette was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the United States after World War I.[7] The guns of the Wilmette were manned by Gunner's Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in World War I, and Gunner's Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo in the conflict.[8] For the remainder of her 25-year career, the gunboat served as a training ship for naval reservists in the 9th, 10th, and 11th Naval Districts. She made voyages along the shores of the Great Lakes carrying trainees assigned to her from the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Wilmette remained in commission, carrying out her reserve training mission until she was placed "out of commission, in service," on 15 February 1940.

Designated IX-29 on 17 February 1941, she resumed training duty at Chicago on 30 March 1942, preparing armed guard crews for duty manning the guns on armed merchantmen. That assignment continued until the end of World War II in Europe obviated measures to protect transatlantic merchant shipping from German U-boats.

File:Eastland Disaster Plaque.jpg
Historical marker along the Chicago River commemorating the Eastland disaster

During August 1943 the IX-29 was given the honor of transporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy, James F. Byrnes and Harry Hopkins on a 10 day cruise to McGregor and Whitefish Bay to plan war strategies.[9]

On 9 April 1945, she was returned to full commission for a brief interval. Wilmette was decommissioned on 28 November 1945, and her name was struck from the Navy list on 19 December 1945. In 1946, the Wilmette was offered up for sale. Finding no takers, on 31 October 1946, she was sold to the Hyman Michaels Company for scrapping which was completed in 1947.[6]


A marker dedicated to the accident was dedicated on 4 June 1989. This marker was reported stolen on 26 April 2000 and a replacement marker was installed and rededicated on 24 July 2003.

There are plans for a permanent outdoor exhibit with the proposed name "At The River's Edge". This exhibit would be at the exact location of the disaster.[10] The exhibit will include 6 steel frames for a total of 12 panels. The 12 panels will combine text with high-resolution images to tell the story of the Eastland Disaster.

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Eastland Memorial Society". Retrieved 25 April 2009. 
  2. Baillod, Brendon. "Introduction". The Wreck of the Steamer Lady Elgin. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "History: August 14, 1903". Eastland (1903). Maritime Quest. Retrieved 25 April 2009. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "The Prophecy". The Eastland - Lake Erie. Eastland Memorial Society. Retrieved 25 April 2009. 
  5. "The Oprah Winfrey Show trivia", Retrieved on 2008-07-28.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "Wilmette". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. United States Navy. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 
  7. "The UC-97". Eastland Disaster Historical Society. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 
  8. "USS Wilmette". Eastland Memorial Society. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 
  9. "History:Aug.1943". Eastland (1903) Builder's Data. Maritime Quest. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 
  10. "At The River's Edge A permanent outdoor Eastland Disaster exhibit". Eastland Disaster Historical Society. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 

This article includes text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Jay Bonansinga, The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy, Citadel Press 2004. ISBN 0-8065-2628-9
  • George Hilton, Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic, Stanford University Press 1997. ISBN 0-8047-2801-1
  • Ted Wachholz, The Eastland Disaster, Arcadia Publishing 2005. ISBN 0-7385-3441-2

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