Sunday, January 24, 2016


The Haunting Mystery of the One of Chicago's Greatest Disasters

The afternoon of July 24, 1915, was a special day for thousands of Chicagoans. It was the afternoon that had been reserved for the annual summer picnic for employees of the Western Electric Company. Officials at the company had encouraged the workers to bring along as many friends and relatives as possible to the event, which was held across the lake at Michigan City, Indiana. Even after this open invitation, managers were surprised to find that more than 7,000 people showed up to be ferried across Lake Michigan on the three excursion boats that had been chartered for the day. The steamers were docked on the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle streets, and included Theodore Roosevelt, Petoskey and Eastland. 

Eastland was a rusting Lake Michigan steamer that was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company. It was supposed to hold a capacity crowd of 2,500 people, but it is believed that on the morning of July 24, more than 3,200 climbed on board. In addition to being overcrowded, the vessel had a reputation for being unstable. Years before, it was realized that design flaws in the ship made it top-heavy. In July 1903, a case of overcrowding had caused Eastland to tip and water to flow up one of its gangplanks. The situation was quickly rectified, but it was only the first of many such incidents. To make matters worse, the new federal Seaman's Act had been passed in 1915 because of the RMS Titanic disaster. This required the retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on Eastland, as well as on other passenger vessels. Eastland was so top-heavy that it already had special restrictions about how many passengers it could carry. The additional weight of the mandated lifeboats made the ship more unstable than it already was. 

The huge crowd, the lifeboats, and the negligence of the crew created a recipe for disaster.

On the unseasonably cool morning of July 24, Eastland was moored on the south side of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. After she was loaded with passengers, the aging vessel would travel out into Lake Michigan, heading for the Indiana shoreline. Excited, happy, and nervous passengers lined the riverside docks, eager to get on board. The morning was damp, but better weather was promised for the picnic in the afternoon.

After the passengers were loaded on board, the dock lines were loosed and the ship prepared to depart. The massive crowd, dressed in their best summer clothes, jammed onto the decks, calling out and waving handkerchiefs to those who were still on shore. Many of the passengers went below decks, hoping to warm up on this cool, cloudy morning. As the steamer eased away from the dock, it started to tilt to the port side. Unknown to the passengers, the crew had emptied the ballast compartments of the ship, which were designed to provide stability, so that more passengers could be loaded on board. They didn't count on a sudden shift in weight that would cause the vessel to lean even farther toward the port side. That sudden shift was caused by a passing fireboat, which fired off its water cannons to the delight of the crowd. The passengers hurried over to the port side for a closer look and moments later, Eastland simply rolled over. It came to rest on the river bottom, which was only 18 feet below the surface. 

The Eastland after she rolled onto her side in the Chicago River

The passengers who had been on the deck were thrown in the river, thrashing about in a moving mass of bodies. Crews on the other steamers, and on passing vessels, threw life preservers into the water, while those on shore began tossing lines, boxes, and anything that would float to the panicked and drowning passengers. The overturned ship created a current that pulled many of the floundering swimmers to their doom, while many of the women's long dresses were snagged on the ship, tugging them down to the bottom. 

The unluckiest passengers were those who had been inside the ship when it turned over. These ill-fated victims were thrown to one side of the vessel when it capsized and many were crushed by the heavy furniture below decks, which included tables, bookcases, and even a piano. As the river water rushed inside, those who were not immediately killed were drowned a few moments later. A few of them managed to escape to the upturned side of the ship, but most of them didn't. Their bodies were later found trapped in a tangled heap on the lowest side of Eastland.  

Firefighters, rescue workers, and volunteers soon began to arrive and started cutting holes in the ship's hull that was above the water line. A few who had scrambled to safety inside the ship emerged from the holes, but for most of them, it was simply too late. Those on shore eagerly watched for more survivors, but no one emerged from the wet darkness. The men who had come to rescue the trapped and the injured had to resign themselves to pulling waterlogged corpses from the river instead. The bodies were wrapped in sheets and placed on the nearby Roosevelt, or lined up along the docks. The large stores downtown, like Marshall Field's, sent wagons to carry the dead to the hospitals, funeral homes, and the makeshift morgues. 

Corpses were fished out of the river using large grappling hooks, but those who had been trapped beneath the ship had to be pulled out by police divers and volunteers. According to newspaper accounts, one of these divers, who had been bringing up bodies from the bottom of the river for hours, went insane. He had to be subdued by friends and police officers. City workers dragged the river where Eastland had capsized, using large nets to prevent the bodies from being pulled out into the lake. By the time it was all over, 841 passengers and four crewmembers perished in the disaster. Many of them were women and children and 22 families – husbands, wives, children, even grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles -- were completely wiped out. 

The hundreds of bodies that were recovered on the morning of the disaster were taken to the nearby Reid-Murdoch Building and to local funeral homes and mortuaries. The only public building that was large enough to be used as a morgue was the Second Regiment National Guard Armory, which was located on Carpenter Street, between Randolph Street and Washington Boulevard. The dead were laid out on the floor of the armory in rows of 85 and assigned identifying numbers. Any personal possessions that were found with the corpses were placed in envelopes bearing the same number as the body. 

The rows of the Eastland dead at the National Guard Armory

Chicagoans with loved ones who had perished in the disaster filed through the rows of bodies, searching for familiar faces, but in the mentioned 22 cases, there was no one left to identify them. The names of these unidentified victims were learned through the efforts of neighbors, who came searching for their friends. The weeping, crying, and moaning of the bereaved echoed off the walls of the armory for days. The American Red Cross treated 30 women for hysteria and exhaustion in the days following the disaster. 

The final body was identified on Friday, July 30. A 7-year-old boy named Willie Novotny of Cicero, #396, was the last. His parents and older sister had also died on Eastland and his identification came from extended family members, who arrived nearly a week after the disaster took place. After Willie's name was learned, a chapter was closed on one of Chicago's most horrific events.
Officially, the mystery of what happened to Eastland that day was never solved. No clear accounting was ever made to explain the capsizing of the vessel. Several hundred lawsuits were filed, but almost all of them were dismissed by the Circuit Court of Appeals, which held the owners of the steamer blameless in the disaster. After the ship was raised from the river, it was sold at auction. The title was later transferred to the government and the vessel was pressed into duty as the gunboat U.S.S. Wilmette. The ship never saw action but was used as a training ship during World War II. After the war, it was decommissioned and put up for sale in 1945. Finding no takers, it was scrapped in 1947. 
Eastland was gone, but her story has continued to linger for years. 

On the morning of the Eastland disaster, many of the bodies of the victims were taken to the Second Regiment National Guard Armory. As the years passed, there was no longer a need for a National Guard armory to be located so close to downtown Chicago. It was closed down by the military and the building was sold off. It went through several incarnations over the decades, including uses as a stable and a bowling alley, before being purchased by Harpo Studios, the production company owned by Oprah Winfrey.

Unfortunately, though, the success of the Winfrey’s talk show, which was filmed in the former armory, did nothing to put to rest the spirits that lingered from the Eastland disaster. A number of staff members, security guards, and maintenance workers claimed that the ghosts of the disaster victims who perished in 1915 restlessly wandered the building. Many employees had encounters with things that could not easily be explained away, including the sighting of a woman in a long, gray dress who walked the corridors and then mysteriously vanished into the wall. There were many occasions when this woman was spotted, but each time she was approached, she always disappeared. Some surmised that she was the spirit of a mourner who came looking for her family and left a bit of herself behind at the spot where she felt her greatest pain. 

The woman in gray may not have been alone in her spectral travels throughout the old armory. Staff members also claimed to hear whispers, the sounds of people sobbing, moaning noises, and phantom footsteps. The footsteps, which sounded as though they belonged to a group of several people, were usually heard on a staircase in the lobby. Doors that were located nearby often opened and closed by themselves. Those who experienced these strange events came to believe that the tragedy of yesterday was still replaying itself on the former armory in its later incarnation. 

The site of what became the Second Regiment Armory morgue was not the only location in Chicago that resonated with chilling stories of Eastland disaster ghosts. 

There were reports of the ship itself being haunted that date back to the time just after the disaster and prior to its sale to the Navy. During that period, it was docked near the Halsted Street Bridge and regarded with superstition by passers-by. One lonely caretaker, Captain M.L. Edwards, lived aboard it and said he was awakened by moaning noises nightly, though he attributed them simply to the sound of the ship falling apart. Amused as he claimed to be to see people hurry across the bridge, terrified when they saw a light in his cabin, he was very glad to move off the ship after its sale to the Navy in December 1915.

The site on the river where the disaster occurred has its strange stories to this day. For many years, people who have passed on the Clark Street Bridge have claimed to hear moaning and crying sounds coming from the river, along with bloodcurdling screams, and pleas for help. In addition, some witnesses state that the cries are accompanied by the sounds of someone splashing in the river, and even the apparitions of people helplessly flailing about in the water.
During several incidents, witnesses have called for help from emergency services, believing that someone was actually drowning in the river. At least one man jumped into the water to try and save what he thought was a person who was unable to swim. When he returned to the surface, he discovered that he was in the river alone. He had no explanation for what he had seen, other than to admit that it might have been a ghost.

In the same way that the former armory seems to have replayed an eerie recording of past events, the Chicago River also seems to be haunted. It appears that the horror of the Eastland disaster has left a memory behind at this spot and it continues to repeat itself over and over again - ensuring that the luckless victims from the Eastland will never truly be forgotten.  

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