A Forgotten Tragedy Uncovered

CBR_Logo2Ashes Under Water:
SS Eastland and the
Shipwreck That Shook America
by Michael McCarthy

More than eight hundred people drowned in the Chicago River nearly a century ago when the SS Eastland listed and then toppled, sending scores of factory workers from Western Electric and their families into the river’s icy waters. More people died in the tragedy than in the sinking of the Titanic or the Lusitania.

Largely forgotten now, the tragedy riveted Chicago—and the entire nation—in its gruesomeness as well as in the politics, corruption, and corporate greed that marked the event.

ashes under waterFormer Wall Street Journal journalist Michael McCarthy, who calls Chicago and South Haven, Michigan, home, delves into the Eastland tragedy in Ashes Under Water, a thoroughly researched account of the disaster and its aftermath. McCarthy notes that he spent more than a decade investigating the history of the Eastland, drawing on hundreds of pages of previously unpublished documents from the National Archives. What he uncovered reveals a web of deceit and corruption that ensnared sailors, businessmen, shipbuilders, factory workers, and attorneys.

Ashes Under Water launches with a look at the businessmen who made the Eastland possible. Designed as a passenger ship meant to sail the Great Lakes, the Eastland was the brainchild of Sidney Jenks, an engineering graduate and son of shipbuilder William Jenks, who operated out of Port Huron, Michigan. The Eastland would be the first—and only—passenger ship the younger Jenks designed, and, McCarthy writes, his design was “dreadful.”

From the minute she was launched, it was clear the Eastland was not the steadiest of ships. Right out of the docks in 1903, she listed, dropped, and then rolled over about forty-five degrees. She nearly capsized in 1904. She was badly damaged in 1914.


The Eastland shortly after capsizing.

On July 24, 1915, the Eastland was docked on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle streets. Nearly 2,500 passengers were preparing to board her for a voyage that would take them along Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana, for a Western Electric company picnic. She listed toward starboard, straightened up, and then listed toward port, first about ten to fifteen degrees, then twenty-five degrees. Panicked passengers started leaping overboard, into the mucky river. The Eastland listed even farther. Then she toppled.

More than 840 passengers were lost, including twenty-two entire families.

Less an account of the people who perished that day, Ashes Under the Water tells the story of the men who were behind the ship as well as those who sought justice—someone had to be blamed for the tragedy; who was responsible would remain a question for years.

McCarthy recounts this terrible disaster through a series of more than sixty short chapters. He tells of the designers and businessmen who built and operated the Eastland. He tells of the crewmembers who sailed her, most notably Joseph Erickson, the chief engineer who would stand trial for the tragedy. Ashes Under Water morphs from history to disaster story to courtroom drama as the events surrounding the Eastland unfold, and McCarthy tells the story of the men who took the case to court, notably Clarence Darrow of Scopes “Monkey Trial” fame and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Packed with information, Ashes Under Water is a treasure trove of facts and details. It’s clear that McCarthy has done much research for the book, the subject of which first piqued his interest in 1999 when he initially learned about the disaster. It’s clear that McCarthy became fully absorbed in the story of the Eastland as he writes with care about everything from the many people involved to the mechanics of the vessel to the legal issues that followed the July 1915 capsizing.

The story is fascinating, and it’s clear McCarthy has dug deep to uncover little-known aspects of the events surrounding the Eastland. At times, however, some of the detail seems tangential at best and distracting at worst, as though the author simply couldn’t bear to leave out even the smallest tidbit of information even if it might be superfluous.


Author Michael McCarthy (photo by Trish Scelfo)

As a result, Ashes Under Water can feel choppy and disjointed at times, particularly in the first part of the book. The story evens out a bit later, however, and McCarthy does his best work when writing about the courtroom antics that followed the disaster. The page-turning material here is riveting as McCarthy reveals the distasteful shenanigans and ugly corruption that marked the Eastland’s history as well as the legal charges that accompanied its capsizing.

Readers get to know chief engineer Erickson, gain some insight into Darrow’s early legal career, and learn about Industrial Age businessmen whose focus on profits may well have sunk the Eastland. Some readers may miss, however, reading more about the more than eight hundred passengers, workers at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Plant in Cicero, who perished that day. It was the greatest loss of life in Great Lakes history.

McCarthy doesn’t ignore the passengers, however, peppering these pages with sections called “The Red Cross Toll,” five pages sprinkled throughout the second half of the book that feature small vignettes of fifteen of the passengers who perished. In a bizarre touch, more than two and a half pages of solid text simply read “Gone. Gone. Gone. … Gone.” over and over and over. This apparently is for effect, in order to emphasize the impact of the loss of life; instead it feels like a gasp-worthy editorial gimmick.

Even so, it is clear in Ashes Under Water that McCarthy was deeply touched by the various facets of the Eastland’s story, a much-forgotten tale that was never fully resolved as the cause of the disaster was never discovered; nor was blame ever successfully placed on anyone. McCarthy’s interest in the subject is evident, and readers will find much to like in this history of one of Chicago’s worst disasters.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, Lyons Press
$25.95, hardcover, 301 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7627-9328-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the book.
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1 Comment

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One response to “A Forgotten Tragedy Uncovered

  1. Pingback: CBR’s Best Books of 2014 | Chicago Book Review

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