The Eastland

Ninety three years ago today, the 'Eastland' sank in the Chicago River and killed 835 people. In 1976 I wrote a poem about that event and the subsequent agony the City of Chicago went through trying to figure it all out. To my mind, the whole and TRUE story has never been, and may never be, told. Chicago was, then, as it grew a reputation for later, a seething den of political corruption.

The questions asked in the piece have never been fully answered.

Oh, and one more thing. "The Eastland Disaster" was published in a compilation of poems called 'Kettlestrings' in 1976. But since I'm the author, I hereby give myself permission to reprint the poem here.


The river under the Clark Street bridge,
is dirty, muddy and green,
much the same as it used to look,
in the summer of Nineteen Fifteen.

Saturday morning, July Twenty Fourth,
at the south end, west of the span,
'Eastland' waited, tied to her moorings,
for the onset of the appointed plan.

Five ships were there on that muggy day,
bound for fun in Michigan City,
and all lay quietly tied to the docks,
while the 'Eastland' calliope played a ditty.

Some two thousand people crowded her decks,
by ten after seven that morning,
bound for Hawthorne Works company picnic,
they had taken their foreman's warning.

For to many it had been made quite clear,
"Don't miss the picnic", they'd really better go,
"If you're not there come Saturday morning,
come Monday, don't bother to show."

But the atmosphere was bright and gay,
formen's warnings had been put out of mind.
They planned their games and the things they would do,
or would have done, but for fate, unkind.

No one knows precisely when,
the best guess is about quarter after.
'Eastland' took a hard list to port,
and apprehension replaced the laughter.

But she straightened herself, upright again,
there was a general sigh of relief,
but then, she took a harder list starboard,
what happened next was beyond belief.

She brought herself back, upright again,
but fear froze the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters,
as she rolled back to port and over on her side,
and went down in twenty one feet of the river's green waters.

and the newsboys cried:

Just the thought can make one shiver,
by the 'Eastland' and the river.

and the city's voice cried:

"Sir, I have some questions to ask,
Could someone please tell me why,
of the sixty five men aboard her as crew,
not one of them was to die?"

"And why did the Captain pump out her ballast,
when, earlier that morning, he docked?"
"And why were all the preserver cabinets,
not only closed, but locked?"

"And what of the naval architect,
who wrote letter, after letter, after letter,
Saying 'Eastland's unsafe, she has listing problems,
she should have been designed better?"

"And what of the government ship inspector,
who, just a short time before,
raised her capacities, at the request of the owners,
by several hundred people more?"

For months these queries haunted the city,
these unanswered ponderances of 'How?' and 'Why?',
but, somehow, these questions were put to rest,
when came the official reply.

"We find the 'Eastland' a seaworthy vessel."
was the spokesman seen to shivver?
"We find no evidence of negligence,
on the 'Eastland', that day, on the river."

Yes, the river under the Clark Street bridge,
IS dirty, IS muddy, IS green,
Just the same as it used to look,
in the summer of Nineteen Fifteen.

This photo, of the 'Eastland' being righted, is public domain, as are the rest of the photos displayed here.


redchair said...

Wow! Your poem was wonderful. I'm still just caught in how horrible this disaster was. And 835 people!
I can't recall ever reading about this. It would be a terrific basis for a movie especially with what seemed to be obvious misgivings with the ship from the get go.
Incredible Lou.


Old Knudsen said...

Yer famous lad and it rhymes, being a former fisher I can't see a boat shaped like that being very safe, 22 families that takes a lot of thinking about.

Tash said...

I am in awe of you Lou! Brilliant piece!

Never heard of the disaster but you paint such a clear yet disturbing picture.

Thanks for sharing.

Employee No. 3699 said...

Lou, brilliant!

I vaguely remember hearing something about this. Looking at the pictures, it doesn’t look like that ship could stay up. It looks too narrow and tall.

Lady Language said...

Fascinating! I really enjoyed the poem and had no idea of this disaster. Does seem strange how all those people died so close to shore when the crew members survived. I have crossed the Clark Street Bridge several times and it now has new meaning...thanks!

Hyphen Mama said...

Wow. I had no idea.

Beautifully written Lou. You make putting words together seem so easy. I wonder if it is as easy as you make it seem.

And thank you for the latest diversion tactic! I laughed heartily and thought maybe I'd add a black eye to the mix. I'm sure I could talk SOMEBODY into giving me a black eye. Then they'll never notice the dust bunnies.

neutron said...

So many questions and never any answers. Looks like some things never change ...

Elizabeth said...

It's absolutely stunning that this happened. What a terrible tragedy and loss of life. I find 835 dead a staggering number for the time. Those poor people.

Eve Grey said...

Oh my God Lou, what a fascinating story. I was riveted. I have not heard of this before. Poem was excellent. I've always been fascinated been any kind of ship disaster (Titanic, Edmund Fitzgerald, Erie Belle), there is something acutely tragic and poetic about them. Due to the helplessness of being on water maybe? Or perhaps because they all took place in a different era? I read A Night to Remember as a kid and was absolutely enthralled. What do you think the story/conspiracy is about that story? They knowingly put people in danger? Just too lazy? negligence?

Holly said...

I've never heard of this! Makes me wonder what else my history education is missing.

LceeL said...

Redchair: This event doesn't seem to have spread much beyond Chicago - unless you're into Maritime Law.

Old Knudsen: Investigators would go to homes, trying to track down people who could identify corpses, and find houses empty, because everyone who lived there died on the boat.

tash: Thank you. I remember feeling very affected by the whole thing, at the time.

employee: Typical profile for Lake Steamers of the time. The architect referenced in the piece thought her engines were poorly located - and she used to 'wallow' when underweigh.

lady L: Yeah. I pause when I go there, as well. I wonder, sometimes, how many people might see me do that and wonder why.

hyphen mama: Writing the first draft of this took less than half an hour. When a piece comes like that, it's just one of those things meant to be born.

neutron: Yes- some things NEVER change.

elizabeth: And I actually met survivors.

eve grey: The same old story - an old, old story. Greed.

holly: For some reason, this story doesn't get much traction outside the Chicago area - but if you're into Maritime Law, you KNOW this story. This forced changes in owner responsibility and compensation laws.

warriorwoman said...

That's the first I've heard of the disaster. Good on you for letting people know about it.

And, damn, what a loss.

Christy said...

Lou, that's so incredible, that you even cared, in 1976.....

So many other things on your mind.

Talina said...

That poem was so vivid and very educational. What a sad and tragic event.

I had no idea about the Eastland before reading this and your poem explained the ship, the day and made me feel the horror and the corruption of the event.

Wonderful writing, what a sad event.

Sandy C. said...

Goodness Lou, I can see why it was published. So tragic and so many questions. You painted that so well in this piece.

Those photos are also chilling.

Maureen said...

Wow, great poem. I too, had never heard of this before. Incredible and disturbing, and of course, so very sad. Thanks for sharing!

maggie's mind said...

Wow. I can't believe I never even heard about this (not that I paid attention in school). Very fabulously told, and the pictures add so much. I'm so curious now about the really story. This gives me chills.

Mike said...

This may be the book that you will write. It's a great story with so many angles.

Queen Goob said...

I second Mike - a little investigative journalism may be fun. Yeah, it was a long time ago but if you sold the movie rights?......

BenefitScroungingScum said...

Hi Lou, I'm just catching up with your blog-it's been ages I do apologise!
This is a great poem, and thank you for educating me about a disaster I'd never heard of before.
Hope all is well with you and yours, BG x