On a summer morning in 1915, thousands of poor Western Electric factory workers and their families lined the docks along the Chicago River, where five ships waited to take them to their company picnic.
As 2,500 passengers wearing their Sunday best crowded aboard the first ship in a light rain, something went terribly wrong. The SS Eastland suddenly rolled onto her side, trapping hundreds of passengers under the river’s filthy water.
Despite the heroic efforts of dozens of would-be rescuers, what had started as a day of promise ended in tragedy for 844 people, including 22 entire families. More passengers perished than on the Titanic, and the grisly death toll far surpassed the Chicago Fire of 1871. Yet the tragedy has been all but forgotten over the years.
At the time, the nation’s citizens were horrified and demanded justice. But what they got were months of legal jostling, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen and a trial that would free not only the ship’s innocent engineer and whistleblower, but also the money-hungry ship owners who sacrificed lives for profit.
Playing a starring role was a down-on-his-luck attorney named Clarence Darrow, who would later become famous for defending John Scopes in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and for a Chicago case involving two thrill-seeking wealthy teenagers accused of killing a 14-year-old neighbor.
Author Michael McCarthy spent 12 years combing through news stories, personal correspondence, trial transcripts and more to piece together what happened that day and how a nation could have forgotten. The result, “Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America,” is a fascinating look at the power and politics of a long-ago era.
The Eastland was one of several grand liners that ferried local residents to the many resort towns along the shores of Lake Michigan just after the turn of the 20th century. Built for speed, the ship boasted luxurious cabins, a grand staircase, a ballroom and walls adorned with silk. Following the Titanic disaster, it also carried a heavy load of lifeboats. What it lacked was stable construction. From the beginning, it was top-heavy and prone to listing, earning it a reputation as a “cranky” vessel.
Despite evidence the ship had narrowly escaped capsizing on several occasions, the latest owners opted to delay a fix that would require putting the ship in dry dock, choosing instead to run it through the lucrative summer season. That decision would prove fatal.
Following a coroner’s inquest, six men were blamed for the loss of lives, including the owners, the captain, the inspectors and the chief engineer. A trial held in federal court in Michigan (where the defendants lived) ended with all the men being cleared.
“The dead cannot be restored to life,” wrote the judge. “The sorrows of the living cannot be lessened by claiming other victims.”
And so the guilty went free and the disaster was soon eclipsed by new headlines and the horrors of World War I. But thanks to a masterful retelling in “Ashes Under Water,” the incident — and its cautionary tale — is no longer forgotten.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with McCarthy, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Search for Reader’s Corner.