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Remembering the Eastland Disaster - July 24, 2005


Remembering the Eastland Disaster



It’s the early 20th century, the 1910s.  A passenger ship carrying over 2,500 people sinks, resulting in the loss of 844 lives, over one-third of those on board.  It’s one of worst maritime accidents in history. 

It wasn’t the Titanic.  It was the Eastland, a large Lake Michigan passenger steamer.  Ninety years ago, on the morning of July 24, 1915, a crowd of 2,500 factory workers and their families boarded the ship at its dock in downtown Chicago; they were employees of the Western Electric Company, headed across Lake Michigan for the company’s annual picnic.  Before the ship left the dock, however, it capsized on the Chicago River, killing 844 people, 841 of them passengers – slightly more than the number of passengers who were lost with the Titanic.  It remains the nation’s worst inland boating accident during peacetime.   

Because this year marks its 90th anniversary, a special commemorative program is being planned by maritime historian Richard Crowe.  Crowe, who is also a folklorist who gives bus tours of “supernatural Chicago,” will mark the anniversary this summer by highlighting the Eastland disaster on Saturday river trips on Mercury Chicago’s Skyline Cruiseline, with a midnight stop at the spot where the Eastland went down near the Clark Street Bridge at Wacker Drive.  Significantly, it’s mostly believers in the supernatural – people who claim to hear bansheelike wails and screams or to see strange forms (like floating bodies of people floundering) on the surface of the water – who remember the Eastland disaster.  (Crowe claims “the spot has the tradition of being haunted.”)  Almost everyone else has forgotten about the tragedy, although its death toll rivaled that of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912. 

Why has the Eastland disaster become virtually forgotten?  It is just because it somehow lacks the drama of that other legendary tragedy? 

There is essentially one reason why the Eastland disaster is virtually unknown today, while the Titanic disaster continues to seize the public’s imagination:  the story of the Eastland does not fit the template, or the model, that historians and other writers have created for the Titanic story.    

In fact, it is one of those great ironies of history that the Eastland disaster was caused by the government’s reaction to the sinking of the Titanic – specifically, by the La Follette Seamen’s Act of 1915, named for the “Progressive” Republican from Wisconsin, Senator Robert La Follette, which among other things required additional lifeboats and rafts on all American passenger ships.  The mandate of the La Follette Act extended even to Great Lakes steamers, even though they were built differently – their hulls had much shallower drafts – than trans-Atlantic liners, making them unstable and top-heavy when loaded with the extra lifeboats and rafts the Act required.  The owners of the Eastland, in partial satisfaction of the provisions of the La Follette Act (which was set to come into force later in the year 1915), added a number of boats and rafts to the ship’s top deck, just three weeks before the Western Electric picnic.  The addition of those lifeboats, which were never used – the ship had capsized and sunk too quickly for them to be any use – was a crucial cause of the disaster.  Something caused the ship to list to one side; and before it even left its dock, the ship overturned, trapping many of the victims in the lower decks.  “Whether people rushed to one side to watch a fistfight, which is one story, or to watch another boat go by, it would not have happened [i.e., the ship would not have capsized] if she had had proper balance,” Crowe has observed. 

In other words, the Eastland disaster was caused by bad governmental policy – by a foolish law, passed hastily by Congress at the insistence of demagogic politicians like Senator La Follette, in response to public anxiety about maritime safety regulations in the wake of the Titanic disaster.  The irony is compounded further by the fact that additional lifeboats, which resulted in the terrible loss of life aboard the Eastland, would not have saved the victims of the Titanic, either.  The notion that “too few lifeboats” was responsible for the loss of life on the Titanic is one of many myths associated with the sinking of that famous trans-Atlantic liner.  Indeed, it could be said that the ultimate cause of the Eastland disaster – that which made possible the foolish La Follette Act – was the mythology about the Titanic and the reasons for its sinking on the night of April 14-15, 1912.   

In one of the best books written about the Titanic disaster, Stephen Cox’s The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions (Open Court Books, 1999), the author shatters a number of the myths and reveals the anti-business, anti-capitalism, anti-technology biases that lie behind these myths.  Cox notes the story that is commonly told in explanation of the disaster: 

“The Titanic was the incarnation of man’s arrogance in equating size with security; his pride in intellectual (apart from spiritual mastery); his blindness to the consequences of wasteful extravagance; and his superstitious faith in materialism and technology.”


(Cox, p. 45, quoting Wyn Craig Wade, The Titanic: End of a Dream (1979).)  Thus, in its general form, the chief myth about the Titanic’s sinking was that it was caused by man’s hubris, or over-confident pride, in building a supposedly “unsinkable” ship.  A secondary theme in the common Titanic myth blames the greedy capitalists who owned the ship, the White Star Line, for the disaster, making a scapegoat of J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the Line, who was present aboard the ship on its maiden voyage and who, to his everlasting infamy, was among the survivors.  Various accounts of the Titanic tragedy – ranging from a 1943 Nazi propaganda film to both the 1997 Broadway musical and the 1997 James Cameron film – claim that Ismay, the villainous capitalist, bullied Captain Smith into making the Titanic go faster so that she (the largest ship in the world) would attract even more attention from the press.  Those accounts also portray Ismay as sneaking into one of the lifeboats, taking the spot of a woman or a child, beneath the contemptuous stare of an attending officer. 

In his book, Stephen Cox tells the true story of Mr. Ismay – a man who has been unfairly blamed for the Titanic disaster – and gives a far more balanced account of what we now know to be the true causes of the tragedy.   Ismay “had exerted very little influence on anything,” Cox reports:  

 “For better or worse, he had not told the captain what to do about icebergs.  He had not incited him to reach New York as fast as possible; he did not want that to happen.  He had not attempted to direct the launching of lifeboats, though he had tried to help where he could.  He had not deprived any other passenger of a means of escape.  He had not directed actions aboard the rescue ship.  He had not tried to direct a coverup.  As to the number of lifeboat accommodations, his ship had met, and even exceeded, the regulations of the British board of trade.”


Government regulations at the time, in 1912, did not demand lifeboat space for every passenger because the idea was widely held that every great liner, like the Titanic, should function as “its own lifeboat.”  The point was to build liners that would stay afloat until help arrived, notes Cox; lifeboats were valued chiefly for their ability to ferry a few people at a time from a distressed liner to a rescue ship, which would use its own boats to speed the operation.  This explains the apparently bizarre regulatory system of the time, in which the required number of lifeboat accommodations was based on the tonnage of ships, not on the number of people they carried.  “The largest liners had the best chance of staying afloat for the longest time, so they could do with a smaller proportion of lifeboat spaces than other vessels.  Considering the dangers of decks overcrowded with `lifesaving’ equipment, it was thought that liners that could carry several thousand people” – i.e., like Titanic – “probably should not have boats for all.” 

Titanic’s hull, which was divided into sixteen watertight compartments, was designed to remain afloat if any two continguous compartments were flooded.  “Because this was the worst accident her builders thought they needed to provide against, they regarded her as virtually unsinkable.”  The accident that caused the Titanic to sink, we now know, truly was a fluke.  If First Officer William Murdock had not given the order to turn when the fatal iceberg was sighted – if he instead had allowed the ship to strike the iceberg head-on – the ship would not have been fatally damaged.  Instead, by scraping alongside the iceberg, the ship’s hull was damaged in an entirely unexpected way – a series of gashes were punctured into her side by the berg – resulting in the flooding of several of the watertight compartments and, tragically, the demise of both the ship and two-thirds of the people on board.  It was an unanticipated risk, Cox emphasizes.  As opposed to the Titanic in the world of myth, “[t]he Titanic of fact . . . was imperiled by obstacles much more difficult to chart – the incalculability of certain risks, the opaqueness of certain intentions, the unpredictability of results from even the best of intentions, . . . .” 

If there is one man who might justly be seen as a villain in the Titanic story, it is not Bruce Ismay but rather the man who helped vilify Mr. Ismay – Senator William Alden Smith, a Republican from Michigan.  Like his colleague, Senator La Follette, Senator Smith was a so-called “Progressive,” that is, an advocate of greater governmental regulation over people’s lives and of a return to the pre-modern public policy of governmental paternalism (which is why the label “Progressive,” whether applied to the leftists of the early 20th century or the leftists of today, is such a misnomer).  Smith was a wealthy lawyer, a newspaper owner, and a crusader against the House of Morgan and other “big-business” interests.  He also was a shameless demagogue and, in Cox’s words, “an ingenuous busybody, cherishing the typically 20th-century American assumption that if anything goes wrong, the United States government ought to do something about it.”  As soon as news of the Titanic disaster reached America, Smith hastily organized an investigative committee of the United States Senate.  Determined to grab Mr. Ismay before he could get back to England, Smith himself rushed to New York, marched onto the rescue ship, the Carpathia, as soon as it docked on April 18, and summoned Ismay to attend a hearing scheduled to open the very next morning in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.  During the hearings, Smith bullied Ismay, rejecting his requests that he be allowed to return to England, instead angrily insisting on reserving him for future testimony.  (When Ismay did return to England, he faced another inquiry, by the British government, led by Smith’s trans-Atlantic counterpart, Lord Mersey and his associates.)  Smith unabashedly used his political power to humble, and to scapegoat, Ismay; in the words of a friendly commentator, he also “bent an instrument [the congressional hearing], constitutionally intended for the sole purpose of obtaining data useful to legislation,” into a means of “mobilizing the power of public opinion” about social and moral issues.  Smith’s hearings into the Titanic disaster, notes Cox, “provided a precedent for all those far-reaching inquisitions to which subsequent generations have become accustomed, inquisitions inspired by elected officials’ expansive idea of their moral as well as legislative authority.”  In other words, Smith set the precedent that led, among other things, to McCarthyism.   

As Smith saw matters, “laxity of regulation” on the part of the British Board of Trade was “largely” responsible for the loss of life on the Titanic.  Cox notes: 

“Following a course that has become well-traveled by American politicians, the Senator steered straight from the land of moral responsibility to the land of technical fixes. Once safety was assured by regulation, there would be no need to wonder who was responsible for disasters.  There would be no disasters.  That is what Smith appeared to assume.  He was losing his grip on the story of the Titanic and the particular decisions that had been made on her one, very particular, voyage; but he had another story to put in its place.  He had the gospel of Progressive political action – simple, impersonal, universal, firmly optimistic about its own effects.”


Echoing Lincoln’s plea for “a new birth of freedom,” Smith perverted Lincoln’s message, arguing that the Titanic disaster should occasion “a new birth of vigilance” as to commercial regulations.  He proposed far-reaching new government regulations on shipping practices.  He also warned against capitalist “concentration of control” in the maritime industry – the spectre of hated “monopolies” or “trusts,” commonly invoked by Progressive-era demagogues, but, as Cox notes, something that “had precisely nothing to do with Titanic’s misfortune.”  (Cox adds, “With equal irrelevance, he demanded a higher proportion of American citizens in the U.S. merchant marine.”)  Smith’s legislative proposals led to a general tightening of federal government control over ship navigation and communication.  (Cox notes, interestingly, that the reforms most closely connected with the Titanic disaster were already being implemented by the North Atlantic shipping companies themselves: companies ordered enough lifeboats and life-rafts to accommodate everyone on board their vessels and, by mutual agreement, moved their shipping lanes further south during iceberg season; and White Star spent £250,000 remodeling Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, so she could float with six watertight compartments flooded.) 

It was in the spirit of these “Progressive reforms,” supposed to avert disaster and to assure passenger safety through government regulation, that Senator Smith’s colleague, Senator La Follette, introduced his bill mandating  more lifeboats on American passenger ships.  One consequence, as soon as the act became effective, was that the costs of implementing it started to put American ships out of business in the trans-Pacific passenger trade.  Another consequence, the direct result of the short-sighted “one-size-fits-all” approach of governmental regulation, was the disastrous insuitability of the La Follette Seamen’s Act and its mandates for Great Lakes steamers.  The result, as noted here, was the Eastland disaster, with a loss of passenger lives that exceeded even that of the Titanic

Another real tragedy is that more lifeboats would not have saved any more lives aboard the Titanic, nor have they always helped save lives on other major ship disasters.  As Cox notes, “The Titanic literally could not have used any more lifeboats, primarily because her boat crews were not organized well enough to save time by launching a number of them simultaneously.”  He adds that weather on the North Atlantic is seldom calm, and that if a ship is going to sink, “it may well develop a list so severe that lifeboats on one side cannot be lowered, because they will hit the hull, and lifeboats on the other side cannot be loaded, because they are swinging too far from the deck.”  Consider, for example, what happened to the Andrea Doria.  Like every other post-Titanic ocean liner, the Doria carried lifeboats for all; but after she was damaged in a collision in 1956, she listed so badly that few of them could be used effectively.  97% of the people aboard were saved, mainly because other ships soon arrived and transferred passengers with their own boats. 

Among the lessons of the Eastland disaster is the law of unintended consequences – a law that continues to be frequently ignored by politicians in the legislature who naively believe that they can “solve” social problems, by mere legislative fiat.  Time and again, experience has shown that the heavy hand of coercive government control, even when done in the name of “saving” lives, often kills as many or more lives than it saves:  consider, for example, the lives lost due to FDA “protection” (which continues to cause tragic delays in bringing new, life-saving drugs and medical devices to market) or to the National Highway & Traffic Safety Administration’s air bag mandate (which since its implementation has resulted in the deaths of several people, mostly children or small-framed adults, fatally injured by the air bags themselves). 

Advocates of the modern regulatory “welfare state,” who build their case for government regulation on myths like the Titanic story, often find the truths of history – like the story of the Eastland disaster – to be uncomfortable truths, because they not only fail to fit the template, or paradigm, they’d like their myths to create but also because they exemplify the law of unintended consequences, explained above, and thus reveal the failures of paternalism.  That’s why it is especially important to tell the story of the Eastland – and to keep it alive for all Americans, not just tourists in Chicago.


 | Link to this Entry | Posted Sunday, July 24, 2005 | Copyright David N. Mayer