This article was part of a series for the Lakeshore Guardian on various aspects of the Great Lakes.

Titanic Tragedy Topped by Great Lakes Disaster

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The Titanic may be the best-known passenger ship catastrophe of all time, but there was a greater loss of passenger lives in a Great Lakes calamity. The tragic end of the Eastland was influenced by the Titanic, whose sinking had a direct bearing on the future of the doomed lakes ship.

You can see items salvaged from the Eastland in the Marine Wing of the Port Huron Museum. There is a special display dedicated to the event, including models of both the ship and the shipyard where it was constructed. There are also numerous photos, and a silver-plated milk and sugar serving set stamped with the name of the lost ship.

Curator T.J. Gaffney showed me through the Marine Wing recently. He knows the history behind every object exhibited there. This is the story he told.

Design flaws not enough

The Jenks Shipbuilding Company was in business in Port Huron, Michigan, for 14 years, from 1890 to 1904. During that time it constructed 24 ships. Only one-the Eastland-was a passenger ship. Commissioned in 1903, the Eastland was popular for lakes excursions before the age of the automobile.

But even at her christening there were concerns about her safety. The ship was 269 feet long but had a beam of only 36 feet. She was more than seven times longer than she was wide. That in itself was not necessarily a concern-lake freighters can be up to ten times longer than they are wide. But freighters carry all their cargo near or below the waterline; above-deck, the housing is minimal. The Eastland was a passenger ship with a high deck topped by two tall smokestacks and two tall masts. Despite early foreboding, however, the Eastland plied her trade for over a decade without serious incident.

By the end of the 1914 season, though, it was clear the teak deck of the Eastland was wearing out. But instead of replacing it with expensive hardwood, a new wonder material, cement, was deemed more cost-effective. Smooth, hard, and virtually indestructible, the new decking was placed on the ship for the 1915 season, adding considerable weight high above the waterline.

The Titanic had sunk shortly before, on April 15, 1912. One of the causes for the loss of life was the shortage of lifeboats. As a result, new federal regulations required all passenger ships to carry enough lifeboats for all their passengers. The Eastland nearly doubled the number of her lifeboats for the new season-all of them on upper decks-making the ship more top-heavy than ever.

But like the Titanic, even the combination of several problems-a fundamental design flaw, shortsighted maintenance, and the unexpected encumbrance of new statutes-was not enough to cause a tragedy. One more unforeseen circumstance was needed to bring about the greatest disaster that ever occurred on Americans inland waters.

The price of being first

The Western Electric Company of Chicago had chartered the Eastland and two other passenger ships for a private excursion for its employees and their families on July 24th, 1915.

The Eastland was the first ship in line. Estimates are that close to 2500 people crowded onto her decks and bridges at the dock. As more and more passengers clambered aboard, the ship began to list ever so slightly. The list turned into a slow death roll that gradually picked up speed, until the ship capsized in the harbor. Some passengers jumped off, more were thrown off. The roll had started so slowly that a few were able to walk across the side of the ship and remain standing on the upside-down keel. Many, many others were knocked unconscious or trapped below decks.

The confusion was great. A lot of people couldn't swim, and the many foreigners among the passengers created a communications Babel. Nearby ironworkers rushed to the floating keel and began cutting holes in it to help those trapped below deck, but it was too late.

Although some 1700 people died when the Titanic went down, nearly two-thirds were crew. The Eastland lost about half that number, 835 people, but virtually all of them were passengers. Over 100 more passengers died in Chicago Harbor than had died in the ocean.

Most harrowing of all, the Eastland passengers did not die at night, in the freezing waters of the north Atlantic, but on a hot summer day only a few feet from safety, in front of the horrified faces of those who would eagerly have boarded the fated ship-had there been room.

Port Huron Museum, 1115 Wall Street, Port Huron
Open Wednesday-Sunday, 1 PM-4:30 PM    Tel. 810 982 089
Ticket prices: Adults $3; students and seniors (over 55) $2; children 6 and under free
"Passports" for all three Port Huron Museums: Adults $5, students and seniors $3
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