On Saturday, July 24, 1915, the S.S. Eastland, known as the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes,” was part of a fleet of five excursion boats assigned to take Western Electric employees, families and friends across Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana, for a day of fun and fellowship. But the festivities were short-lived and quickly turned tragic.
Chicago Tribune July 25, 1915
“Somebody made a big mistake!”
Five words serve to epitomize the official summing up of the Eastland tragedy as a half dozen investigating agencies close in on the mistaken somebody.
“Somebody made a big mistake”—what will take rank as one of the big mistakes in history—and the placid, shallow, narrow, utilitarian Chicago river folded to its bosom perhaps as many human beings as ever were caught in any ocean tragedy of modern times.
At midnight there had been taken from the overturned excursion boat and from the river near the scene of the disaster—the familiar old Clark street bridge—919 dead bodies of children, women, and men who had boarded the vessel at 7:30 a.m. for a Western Electric gala excursion to Michigan City.
Of the 889 bodies recovered, approximately 200 have been identified. The others lie, unclaimed and tagged with numbers, in the Second Regiment armory, Curtis street and Washington boulevard (HARPO Studio). The armory was open through the night for the admission of people looking for their dead and missing friends.
Dead May Reach 1,800
Estimates of the total number of dead—based on the recovery of the 919 bodies—are still uncertain. Of the passengers and crew, reported to be a few less than 2,500, 700 have reported safe. This would mean that 900 bodies are still in the hull of the vessel or in the river, with a total of 1,200 dead.
However, the authorities do not believe that any such number are dead and not recovered. It is supposed that many of the passengers got off the ill fated boat without reporting the fact. If there are 300 bodies still to be recovered—and work is continuing through the night—the total death list would number approximately 1,200, Perhaps it is not so large—it may be larger.
AMAZING PHOTOGRAPH OF EASTLAND DISASTER
This Photo, Showing the Victims in the Water, Was Taken About Eight Minutes After the Catastrophe. The Photographer (Mike Psaris) Had His Camera Trained on the Boat Before It Overturned, But Was Too Stunned to Make the Exposure at the Instant.
① Main deck forward, ② The bridge, ③ Removing body of woman from starboard quarter, ④ Foremast stays, ⑤ Boat deck, ⑥ Deck housing for life boats, ⑦ Lifeboat from Theodore Roosevelt, ⑧ Overturned lifeboat swinging from davits, ⑨ Lifeboat made fast, ⑩ Men and women on life raft, ⑪ Crew releading lifeboat from davits, ⑫ Frenzied passengers gained safety on ship’s deck
An Unparalleled Tragedy.
In the dire catastrophe of the Eastland there was no thrilling mid-ocean fight against raging winds and mountain seas, no hidden iceberg on a lonely course of midnight collision, no thunder of big guns in a clash of rival fleets.
But, literally in the heart of a great city, with elevated trains and street cars thundering past within a few hundred feet, on a mild summer morning, with a multitude to look on in mute helplessness, with metropolitan skyscrapers casting their shadow over it all, something like 1,200 persons went to their death in a prosaic excursion boat as it capsized at its berth. Small boats were all about; a city fire station within a few dozen steps. An the boat was lashed to its dock!
Such was the unparalleled, paradoxical tragedy of the Eastland. The victims perished within reaching distance of shore, within speaking distance of streets crowded with office bound loop workers.
No Warning; No Escape.
The better part of them, with women and children outnumbering the men four to one, died without a chance for life. Packed mostly between decks aboard the cranky craft, they got no warning from officers and crew until the water was upon them, Then it was too late.
Last night, under the glaze of a row of great flaming lights, they were still taking the bodies from the death ship, while the police fought back the crowd which had lingered all day about the scene of disaster, striving for a glimpse of what was going on behind the bluecoat cordon.
View of the disaster area from the Clark Street dock.
Rescuers Work All Night.
the old Eastland, its livery work done, lay wearily on its port side less than fifty feet from where it started. More than half the boat was submerged. On the dry uppermost portion firemen, federal life savers, policemen, physicians, and other rescue workers hovered about yawning holes which had pierced through the steel shell by oxygen flames. Over all emergency lights flared and flickered, casting an unearthly glow on the faces of the dead as they were brought forth and placed on the stretchers.
Besides the arcs and the 125 electric tungsten lamps, which employees of the Commonwealth Edison company had strung along the upper side of the Eastland and through its interior, ten searchlights played on the hull from the roof and tower of the Reid-Murdoch company warehouse on the opposite side of the river, which, earlier in the day, had been requisitioned as a temporary hospital and morgue. There also was an improvised telephone service on the hull connecting with the main trunk lines ashore. In addition to which the telephone company had supplied a score of free phones for the use of survivors, their friends, and relatives.
2nd Regiment Armory converted into a post disaster morgue after the Eastland Disaster on July 24, 1915.
Photograph by Jun Fujita.
Divers Continue Work.
Three divers, stripped to the waist, kept “treading water” in the hull. When they kicked a body they called to men above, who retrieved it with pike poles and grappling irons. This morning the work will be renewed with three fresh divers from Milwaukee.
There were holes in the starboard side of the Eastland through which the rescuers worked. The holes had been pierced by oxygen flames over the protest of Hrry Pedersen, captain of the boat. Pedersen had got himself into trouble earlier in the day by ordering the men with oxygen torches to do nothing that would damage the hull. Subsequently the captain and his first mate, together with others of the crew, were arrested by order of Herman Schuettler, first deputy superintendent of police.
Above the whole tragedy one point stands out—a point on which the stories of the survivors, however incoherent, agree. That is, that, although the Eastland was known over the lakes for its lack of stability, neither officers nor crew apprised the passengers of their danger until it was too late for them to save themselves.
Two Big Questions.
According to the testimony now in hand, passengers were sliding down the sloping deck and the port rail was at the water’s edge before there was an official chorus of:
- Get over on the other side, everybody!
There are two big questions which the various investigating bodies will seek to have answered:
- 1—Was it because of a defect its water ballast system that the Eastland capsized?
2—Were more passengers permitted aboard than its official carrying capacity of 2,500
Already there had been several answers to both questions.
R. H. McCreary, navigation inspector, says he turned away all perspective passengers after his automatic counter registered 2,500.
Contradicting McCreary’s assertion is the estimate of two officials in charge of the outing that 3,200 persons, of whom the women outnumbered the men four to one, had been crowded aboard the Eastland.
The Eastland’s gauge tender came forward late in the afternoon with the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship company’s version of the capsizing.
A sudden rush of passengers to the port side of the excursion boat to view a passing launch carried the Eastland over, he said.
But in their stories the survivors say there was no such rush—that the crowd, great though it was, seemed evenly distributed over the vessel.
Chicago Tribune, July 27, 1915
The diagram on the left shows a cross section of the hull of the Eastland, indicating the absence of a keel, which Naval Architect J. Devereux York asserts might have saved the vessel. If the ship had been constructed as shown on the right Mr. York believes the accident would not have happened. He says that every safety principal in boat construction was violated in the Eastland in the interest of cheapness and speed.
While the Mandolin Plays
It was at 7:40 o’clock that the Eastland went over, just as its stern line had been cast off from its berth west of the south end of the Clark street bridge. On the east side of the bridge the steamer Theodore Roosevelt, also chartered by the picnickers, was taking on a second load of passengers.
On the upper deck of the Eastland a little mandolin and fiddle orchestra was playing ragtime. There was no dancing, for the crowd overflowed the dance floors.
Some of those aboard the boat had noticed it was unsteady and swaying from side to side without apparent cause. At last, when it seemed the vessel could hold no more passengers, the gangway was drawn in.
A belated passenger was permitted to jump the gap, and then, the stern line cast off, the Eastland swung out into the river. But it was still held to the dock by its bow line, while deckhands made fast a hawser from the tug Kenosha, which was to tow it out of the harbor.
What stability the Eastland had before seemed to have been supplied by the close drawn stern line. Freed, it began to list to port, leaning toward the Reid, Murdock & Co. warehouse on the other side of the river.
View of Eastland taken from Fire Tug in river, showing the hull resting on it’s side on the river bottom.
First Listing Ignored.
At first the Eastland heeled slowly, almost imperceptibly. Harry Pedersen, the captain, stood stood on the bridge shouting orders. Neither he, hos officers, nor his crew paid attention to the list, and those of the passengers who had felt slight alarm forgot their fear.
The orchestra played on. The picnickers, a cargo of white shirts, duck trousers, and waving handkerchiefs, shouted farewell to their friends left behind on the dock—the friends who were to start across the lake later aboard the Theodore Roosevelt.
Farther over leaned the Eastland. Chairs began to slip from beneath their occupants. Still, the captain stuck to his bridge, his voice ringing reassuringly. The musicians continued their fiddling, digging their heels into the deck to keep from sliding downhill over the deck.
Everything was all right, it seemed. The river was narrow; the Eastland was big and therefore safe. There was the deck comfortingly near, the big warehouses throwing their shadows clear across the stream, cars and trucks rumbling over the bridges, the crowd on the Roosevelt waving farewell.
Then, with a final lurch of the top-heavy hull, tragedy took a hand in the picnic. The music stopped in the middle of a bar. Downhill against the port rail tumbled the musicians, scattered and mixed among the rolling, struggling passengers.
“Too Late As Usual”
Tribune Cartoons by John McCutcheon, July 26, 1915
Women Slide Into Water.
It was a hill there was no climbing, a hill that grew steeper and more impossible with each instant. There was silence for a second as the deck was swept clean. The water rose to the port rail. It was the signal for a chorus of screams. The water drowned them.
Some of those on the open upper deck, confident of their ability to swim—boys and men for the most part—jumped overboard. The rest, the women, were slid into the river.
Below, on the boxed-in ‘tween decks, it was different—worse. At the last moment, with the Eastland leaning at an angle of 45 degrees, there had been a rush for the companionways. A few reached the upper deck and comparative safety, and then, with hundreds of men, women, and children jammed in a death tangle, the “grand staircase” gave way. Thus the main escape from the entrapping lower decks was blocked.
Close to the Eastland’s berth the river is only a little more than twenty feet in depth. The big excursion boat, with a beam more than twice twenty feet, went no further when its port side found the bottom. It lay like a toy boat of tin wrecked in a gutter. Its starboard half rising clear of the water.
Sea of Bobbing Heads.
On to the starboard side climbed the handful—perhaps 200—who had been fortunate enough to be close to the upper rail and who had presence of mind to cling to it.
Scarcely had the Eastland capsized when on the surface of the river, which a moment before showed only the scum of commerce, appeared a hundred bobbing heads, a crew-less and passenger-less lifeboat that had floated free of its davit, and a couple of automatically released life rafts. Before boats lowered by the Roosevelt and the steamer Petoskey, lying near, could reach them many of the heads disappeared.
The Eastland with the Favorite excursion boat nearby.
Saved—Red Haired Boy.
The life rafts meant the saving of a score who managed to reach them. The one lifeboat that drifted away from the Eastland was picked up with a single passenger—a red haired boy of 6 plucked from the river and tossed onto it.
Employees of the commission houses which back on the river threw crates and barrels overboard, and more, clinging to these, were taken from the water as the rescue forces assembled. But the biggest factor in the business of life saving was the Kenosha. Apparently its captain realized what was coming before the Eastland’s own officers.
Pontoon Bridge Built.
There was a jungle of bells aboard the tug and it bucked until its stern rested against the horizontal bow of the excursion boat. Then the bow of the tug was swung in to the dock and a bridge to shore was formed for those who had gained the uppermost side of the Eastland. Over the “bridge” scores footed to safety.
Within a few minutes, the fireboats Graeme Stewart and D. J. Swenie, with otherv tugs and launches, raced up the river to the rescue. Those who had clung to the starboard rail and climbed over side were put ashore. Their places on the hull were taken by rescuers—Capt. Carlund and his crew of life savers from the government station at the mouth of the river, firemen, policemen, a hastily organized medical staff.
Police ambulances, hospital ambulances, and undertakers’ ambulances, called from all parts of the city, flocked to the Clark street bridge. Trucks and wagons brought lung motors and other respiratory apparatus.
Rescue workers pull a person out of the water and onto the boat Racine, while the SS Eastland, background, lies on its side in the Chicago River.
Panic on the Roosevelt.
After an incipient panic aboard the Roosevelt had been checked by the vessel’s officers, who kept the passengers below decks until their excitement had abated, the second excursion boat was turned into a temporary morgue.
Bodies taken from the Eastland by divers and firemen were stretched along the Roosevelt’s decks until there was room for no more. Then the Reid-Murdoch warehouse was thrown open for the reception of the dead.
Over the side of the Eastland, over the deck of the Kenosha, along the narrow dock, and up the stairs to the street level crawled a continuous double line of stretcher bearers, policemen for the most part. Once the work was systemized bodies were brought out of the hull at the rate often of two a minute.
Physicians Aid Rescue.
Through the early hours—while there were any more chances left—not a chance was taken. Dr. Thomas A. Carter, Dr. M. K. Little of the local Red Cross, and other assisting physicians injected strychnine into each body as it came forth. But that was not all. Up on the bridge and on the sidewalk to the south, supervised by Dr. W. A. Evans, health editor of the Tribune, a staff of physicians and nurses waited with the lung machines.
A score of the machines clanked at the same time. In a few cases men and women apparently dead were restored to life and carried to hospitals. Before an hour had passed the Iroquois Memorial hospital. the Practitioners’, and other downtown institutions were overcrowded with these and other survivors, and ambulances were racing between the bridge and outlying hospitals.
Occasionally, at a nod from one of the long motor operators, waiting stretcher bearers would bring on another body and carry away the one into which science had been unable to put breath. The bodies they took away from the lung motor area went across the bridge to the warehouse.
On July 24, 1915, Cleveland News cartoonist Bob Satterfield was crossing the Clark Street Bridge when he witnessed the capsizing of the SS Eastland. He watched the rescue attempts, and drew this sketch that morning, while it was still fresh in his mind. It was published on July 27, 1915
Most Victims Suffocated.
Coroner’s Physician Joseph Springer examined most of the bodies as they were brought ashore. By pinching the throat of each victim with his fingers the physician determined how they had met death—whether from drowning or suffocation. Dr. Springer said the majority had been suffocated.
Under the steel shell of the Eastland the rescuers could hear tappings and faint cries. After divers had failed to locate the imprisoned passengers a call was sent out for acetylene torches. It was planned to cut eight holes in the steamer’s side.
Eastland Captain Harry Pedersen stands on the hull disapproving of welders cutting into his ship. Police later arrested him and removed him from the scene.
Try To Stop Rescuers.
Capt. Pedersen, Dell Fisher, his first mate, and a dozen of the crew were still lingering among the rescuers on the hull. As the torch operators set to work Pedersen rushed to halt them.
“Here, stop that!” he cried,
“My orders are to save lives, not be careful of the boat,” retorted one of the operators.
Later fifteen of Petersen’s crew were arrested for interfering with the work of the electricians and torch men. The captain’s actions led N. W. LeVally, manager of the Oxwald Acetylene company in charge of the work of piercing the hull, to lodge a complaint against him.
Torch operator working on the hull.
40 Brought Through Hole.
J. H. Rista, chairman of the Odd Fellows’ league and relief board, was another who told of interference by Capt. Pedersen.
“I was using a torch on the hull when Pedersen rushed up and ordered me to stop,” he said. “I told him to go to a place where it is hotter than any torch flame. After I got rid of Pedersen we dragged forty people through the hole he tried to stop from making.”
Louis Schleiert, employed by the city fire prevention bureau, was a rescuer who went to work with a definite end in view. Schleiert’s own wife and two children were imprisoned in the hull. With an ax and an oxygen flame he pierced the shell—apparently unobserved by the vigilant Pedersen—and crawled below.
Crawling and swimming he made his way through the topsy-turvy rest rooms until at last he came upon three bodies he recognized. Had not the firemen found him Schleiert might have joined his family in death. He was carried from the hull unconscious and rushed to a hospital.
Women Driven Mad.
With the bodies a few survivors were brought out by the firemen. Among them were two women who had been trapped together in a stateroom. Both had been driven insame by the experience. Their names were not ascertained.
Pedersen and Fisher, the mate, were arrested by Schuettler’s orders following the former’s interference with the rescue work. They were kept for a time aboard the Graeme Stewart and then were started toward the first deputy’s office, where Coroner Hoffman and Charles Center Case, an assistant state’s attorney, were waiting to question them.
On the way to the city hall Petersen’s escort of twenty policemen was attacked by a mob anxious to get at the man held responsible for the disaster. The police succeeded in dispersing the crowd with their clubs, but one man broke through the cordon and struck Petersen in the face before he in turn was felled by a baton.
The Second Regiment Armory, on Washington Boulevard, served as a temporary morgue for victims.
Crowds Fought Back.
Policemen drafted from practically every station in the city had a hard fight all day to hold back the hundreds of thousands of persons who swarmed toward the Clark street bridge, intent on viewing the overturned Eastland and the work of recovering the bodies of its victims. The bridge approaches from Lake street on the south were held by a dozen police lines. So strict were Schuettler’s orders that even officials and newspaper men ha difficulty in getting through the cordons.
The Chicago Police maintained control of the increasing mass of onlookers.
The Setting and the Scene.
Observers at the scene were moved to remark that it is passing strange how quickly the human mind accustoms itself to gruesome sights.
After the first shock of the charnel ship had passed a flotilla of small boats dotted the surface of the river between Clark and La Salle streets—the smallest, smoothest, safest place of water in the world that formed the setting for the most colossal blunder and greatest ship tragedy in the world’s history.
Across from the upturned death ship a sort of pontoon bridge had been constructed so the steady stream of stretchers with their dead could be quickly unburdened in the big building on the north side of the stream.
A Routine Matter.
Four, five, and six hundred twisted, stiffened forms of babies, young girls, women, and men had been carried across the improvised bridge. Then it became a routine matter with the rescuers.
Policemen’s hands began to swell as they handled scores and hundreds of the victims of some awful criminal negligence. They worked like automations, however mindful the day long that some one’s precious lifeless clay was being removed from the maw of this death orgy.
But that one block of water between Clark and La Salle streets presented other scenes that made people wonder whether they were dulled to such wholesale slaughter of innocents,
Same Thing All Over Again.
The flotilla of small boats, steam, motor, and row, skipped around over that one block of watery grave. The fishers for the dead had become accustomed to it long before noon. And throughout the afternoon, with rooftops, bridges, docks, and windows jammed with curious onlookers, they continued their searching.
Bodies would be picked up with grappling hooks. The man at the rope would announce the fact sort of perfunctorily. Then they would draw alongside and after a few pulls would lift another lifeless form, crumpled and stiff, over the boat side and start for Reid, Murdock & Co.’s building which had been turned into a temporary morgue.
Panorama of the Eastland disaster.
As Girl Is Lifted Out.
They kept on fishing all afternoon. The descending sun shot long rays of gold down over the flotilla, and every now and then yellowed a tangled bit of hair that floated on the water for a moment as they lifted some young girl’s body over the side and laid it on a stretcher.
Over on the main ship the steady stream of stretchers continued as the bodies were hoisted out of the submerged decks.
A great wire net had been thrown across the river at La Salle street. The boats nearest that barrier glided along in circles, stopping every little while to shake a form loose from the screen and lift it over the side.
Great Crowds Silent.
The crowds looked on in silence. They, too, had become accustomed to it. It was too big to grasp. A single drowning might have created more or excitement during the long afternoon—the afternoon of a day that wrote the most colossal tragedy of Chicago’s history.
They didn’t seem to want to go away. They just stared hour after hour, looking half blankly—accustomed to the monotony produced by the twelve hours of rescue work.
The ropes in the pulleys creaked incessantly. The police shouted:
- Clear the gangway!
They made room for another stretcher to use. Perhaps it was a young man. It may have been a child or maiden, with her fluffy white gown wet down to her lifeless form—a band of black velvet around her waist—and the long, wet hair falling into the shafts of golden sunshine.
“The crowds looked on in silence. It was too big to grasp. They didn’t seem to want to go away. They just stared hour after hour.”
City’s Noises Never Stop.
The elevated trains maintained their regular schedule over the Wells street bridge, one block away. Huge ice wagons lumbered down Water street to the fruit houses.The accustomed noises of the great city sounded down on the glassy tomb of the innocents. Tugboats and scows glided past.
“It was passing strange,” said a bystander, “and one cannot grasp the enormity of the blunder—criminal, murderous blunder!”
“But it will all come back to that curious, silent, gaping growd when they get home tonight. It will come back more vividly tomorrow. And when the corteges move from desolate and anguish burdened Lomes this wee—then, in the very hush of the great city, they will feel it all—and understand.”
Chicago Examiner, July 25, 1915
Night brings no cessation to the rescuers’ hunt for bodies atop the Eastland; brilliant arcs light up the scene of the disaster.
A ticket for the Western Electric Co. outing.
Chicago Tribune July 25, 1915
“Now, whoop ‘er up and get busy. We will make this the biggest, finest picnic and the most successful affair that the Hawthorne club ever pulled off.”
That was the final instruction to the committee chiefs handed out by F. B. Holmes, president of the Hawthorne Club at the last meeting before the club’s fifth annual excursion and picnic at Michigan City.
Two committeemen went to it with a vim, and when their reports were in 7,000 employees of the Western Electric company’s works at Hawthorne had been booked for the trip.
Formed Seven Years Ago.
Seven years ago the Hawthorne club was formed as a social and educational organization of the Western Electric company’s employees. It became an immediate success and starting a men’s club, soon spread to the women employees. The club gave dinners, amateur theatricals, organized a band, and held night classes to help along members.
The one biggest affair of the club for the last four years had been the outing at Michigan City. Each year’s program brought more enthusiasm into the club.
But the greatest of all was to be the picnic of 1915.
July and August 1915 covers of Western Electric News newsletter
Company Officials Boost.
This picnic was to be the absolute and final word in the expression of the carnival spirit. The officers of the company and the officials of the Hawthorne plant were among the merry boosters. While the organization was not a part of the company it had always been befriended by the management attending to loyalty and good work.
The committee was so full of inspiration that a newspaper for the promulgation of picnic plans was born.
The July Jubilator came roaring off the press in four happy shouting pages telling the Hawthorne club folks about the great things to be done and to be seen at Michigan City.
“No Jonah About This.”
Volume 1, No. 1 of the Jubilator was hot, but No. 2 was considerably hotter as follows:
The Jubilator and the gossip of the shops at noon hours bubbled with the news of the picnic plans.
Movie Men to Be There.
Arrangements were made to take thousands of feet of moving pictures at the big picnic and the Jubilator set them astir with “Be a movie actress, girls. You will be in it—the beauty parade.”
A thrilling program of athletic men and water sports were announced. “The Beauty Parade, the Swimming Boys,” were headliners. There were to be canoe races, fishing, boating, and basking in the sunshine and close to mother earth.”
The 1914 Beauty Parade.
Hundreds of Entrants.
There were hundreds of clamoring entrants for the events. Everybody wanted to play ball; most everybody wanted to enter the tug of war. They planned a sack race, a “single ladies’ race,” a “mixed couple”—all the kinds of races that an inventive committee could give names for.
The picnic committee and half a dozen subcommittees went ahead to Michigan City to make plans for the invasion of the picnic ten thousand.
Each year the Western Electric visitor had been made welcome at Michigan City, and because of the success of previous performances the city officials decided that the parade was to extend beyond the confines of the outing park and progress through Franklin street.
All Seek Prizes.
Every department at the big Hawthorne works got busy framing to win a prize in the parade competition.
The achievements of the company were to be symbolized among its floats, and biggest of all there was planned a special pageant which should commemorate the great telephone achievement of the decade—the linking of New York and San Francisco by the long distance wires. This was a matter of special pride at the plant—for be it known, the Western Electric company’s workers are the makers of the apparatus with which the American Telegraph and Telephone company (the Bell companies) spans the continent.
Are You Ready?
The Jubilator thundered off the press in a pink “sporting extra.” It demanded to know:
Boosters Are Justified
The boosters were justified when President Holmes, Vice President F. J. Sheridan, and Secretary J. F. Krivanek of the Hawthorne club got their final report the night before.
“Wonder if we’ve got enough boats?” they speculated as they scanned the list:
The Eastland, Theodore Roosevelt, Petoskey, Rochester, and the Kansas.
Negotiations were made for another vessel should the crowd require it.
Out in Gala Attire.
Yesterday morning the Western Electric folks at Hawthorne and about the west side generally turned out in gala attire. The street there were laden laughing parties of men and girls, everybody with picnic lunch in hand, dozens in the costumes in which they were to make merry in the big parade at Michigan City.
Volume 1, No. 6 of the Jubilator was out in its brightest pink, urging
“Do not wait for the last boat.”
The order of sailings was announced:
- Eastland 7:30 a.m.
Roosevelt 8:00 a.m.
Petoskey 8:30 a.m. (Rush Street Dock)
Racine 10 a.m.
Rochester 2:30 p.m. (Rush Street Dock)
Thousands on Docks.
Thousands, probably 5,000 picnickers in all, were at or about the docks when the loading of the Eastland began.
Two federal inspectors stood at the gangplank clicking their counting machines. Presently the boat was loaded.
Inspectors gave a command. The gangplank was lifted. Lines were cast off. The crowd pushed over the rail and cheers arose as a sea of waving hands reached out with banners, handkerchiefs, and sticks fluttering in the breeze. The first of the joy ships was about to be under way.
Then Something Happened.
Up at the bow a ateam tug gave merry “toot’ and the engines hummed and ground as the propellors began to churn water, starting to warp the boat out into the channel.
Then something happened.
Pretty soon the ambulances came and the arriving throngs of picnickers heard a man with a megaphone standing at the head of the dock stairs cry out:
- Western Electric picnic called off!
Western Electric picnic called off!
Then an ambulance filled with dripping bodies went clanging up the street and the picnic crowd began to understand.
The non-Hawthorne excursion boats, the Indiana, Georgia, and Alabama left on schedule.
Moving Pictures World, August 7, 1915
In less than fifteen minutes after the steamship Eastland with its thousanads of passengers aboard had tipped over on its side one of the Industrial Moving Picture Co.’s camera men was on the scene taking motion pictures of the event. Harry Birch of the Industrial camera force followed the fire engine expecting to cover a fire. When he reached the scene it proved to be one of the most horrible catastrophes this country has ever known.
While a heavy rain fell throughout the entire day the picture shows exceptional photography. Every scene is very clear. In portions of it the heavy downpour of the rain can be distinctly seen. The detail of the picture is very sharp considering the conditions which the pictures were taken under.
The Chicago Tribune will release this picture and has offered to donate the proceeds to the relatives of the victims of the disaster.
From Moving Pictures World, 14 August 1915
The Injunction on Eastland Moving Pictures in Chicago.
In my last letter, in the opening article, I stated that moving pictures of the Eastland Disaster had been prohibited in Chicago theaters until grief had become somewhat abated. At the time of writing it had supposed that Acting Mayor Moorehouse, who issued the order in the absence of Mayor Thompson, had acted from a sense of respect for the feelings of the relatives of the victims of the disaster, in the first hours of their agony over the loss of their dead. It was only fitting that this should have been done.
Later it developed that the order was mandatory in its nature, and that the exhibition of the pictures was to be altogether prohibited. On the return of Mayor Thompson, who had canceled all engagements at the San Francisco Exposition, whither he had gone with Governor Dunne and the First Regiment of the Illinois National Guard to celebrate Illinois Day, he appointed a committee of three, composed of civilians, to decide on the issuing of a permit for the exhibition of the pictures. The Chicago Tribune had taken 1,000 feet of these news pictures and offered to donate the entire proceeds, to which it was entitled, to the Eastland relief fund. The committee recommended the refusal of the permit, “out of regard and respect for the wishes and feelings of those who have suffered deep bereavement and are mourning for their tragic loss.” The Mayor thus shifted responsibility to the shoulders of the committee.
The three upright citizens on that committee doubtless acted from a deep sympathy for the bereaved, and without bestowing any thought on ‘the inequity of their decision against moving pictures; for that decision clearly discriminates against news in moving pictures in favor of news as expressed by the written word, supported by illustrations from still photographs of various scenes connected with the disaster.
The whole crux of the matter lies in this: the moving picture is comparatively new and the plaything of censorship; the press, having long since broken the shackles of a worse censorship, devotes its liberty to the securing of full rights and liberty for all. The morning of the day has already dawned when moving pictures will play their important part for good in the formation of public opinion and in the uplift of the race; and, at no distant period, those who come after us will be less amazed at the defeat of the opposition which the moving picture has met than at the glorious things it has wrought and accomplished in the lives and destinies of men.
But Acting Mayor Moorhouse. and the three gentlemen on the committee who declared against the exhibition of the Eastland pictures in Chicago, can console themselves with knowledge of the fact that they are not alone. The New York World stands with them editorially, thusly:
- Why was it necessary for the acting mayor of Chicago to forbid the use of moving pictures of the Eastland wreck and the drowning of her passengers? Would any sane manager have attempted such an outrage?
Anent which the Milwaukee Sentinel, in. the issue of July 28, answers editorially:
- Yes; we see the moral point of that. But, at the same time, we newspapers must clear our minds of cant.
To be frank, is a ‘moving picture’ of that grewsome business any worse than the stationary photographic reproduction of the same horrors—such as, for instance, furnishes the ghastly, but appealing, front page ‘window dressing’ of the same issue of Mr. Pulitzer’s lively newspaper?
No, neighbor. We are all in it. The public likes to ‘sup full of horrors’ on such occasions, and will be served. When newspapers upbraid the ‘movie’ men for turning these tragedies to profitable pictorial account, it seems a bit like Satan rebuking sin.’
From Moving Pictures World, 28 August 1915
Acceding to requests from patrons, the Princess theater, at Canton, cancelled its booking of the Eastland disaster films.
28 August 1915 Advertisement by a Nashville film exchange
From Moving Pictures World, 4 September 1915
Facts and Comments
The opposition of certain constituted authorities against kinematographic records of the Eastland disaster has awakened some of our esteemed contemporaries to the parallel danger in censorship of the press. A newspaper in Western Pennsylvania in criticising the attempted censoring of the pictures of the Eastland catastrophe declares that “the censors do not yet seem to have arrived at the truth that the motion picture when it portrays incidents of every day life is news just as surely as anything that is printed in a newspaper.
The film is an engine of publicity of propaganda and truth with immense possibilities. It may be as dangerous to curb it as to curb the press, the platform or the pulpit. Comments like these are getting common in the daily press. The light is breaking.