Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Eastland Tragedy and Harpo Studios, Part l

The Eastland tragedy claimed three times the lives the Chicago Fire did, but it never received the same notoriety.

This tragedy that occurred in 1915, is one of America’s worst maritime accidents. It took 844 lives, including more than 20 entire families.

On July 24, 1915, the Chicago based company, Western Electric Company chartered four ships to take 8,000 employees to their annual company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.

The Eastland
One of these ships was the steamship The Eastland, which had a reputation for being easily unbalanced. On more than one occasion, it had nearly capsized on Lake Michigan.

3,200 employees of Western Electric boarded this ship on that morning in July for “a day of fun on the company’s dime.”

Unfortunately, The Eastland was only supposed to carry, at most, 2,500 passengers. After the Titanic disaster in 1912, more lifeboats and life preservers were placed on the upper deck of the Eastland, making it top-heavy.

The steamship began to list immediately after it left the dock. This was because most of the passengers where on the upper deck, so they could see the city as they left the port—the ship was now unbalanced.

As the Eastland capsized to its port side, water rushed in through its windows and doors. Mass chaos among the passengers and crew ensued.

Witnesses watched in horror as people were pulled out of portholes. As “Mothers screamed for their children.” By-passers jumped into the river to help passengers to shore.

Many of the female passengers drowned, weighted down by their long dresses that were drenched.

Many people were trapped in cabins with no way out. The people who managed to escape, found themselves struggling to keep above the waterline, as many others landed on top of them.

One witness described the scene “as a moving sea of bodies.”

On the port side.
Chicago History Museum
In just 15 minutes the Eastland was resting on its side in no more than 20 feet of water—entombing hundreds of people inside. Rescuers worked into the night looking for survivors and recovering bodies.

There were so many deceased laid out on the dock, the authorities could not prevent thieves from rummaging through the pockets of the dead.

Local merchants lent their wagons to help move the deceased from the scene. The corpses were taken to the 2nd Regiment Armory, on West Washington Avenue, its gym was set up as a makeshift morgue.

2nd Regiment Armory
Blocks of ice were placed next to the deceased until family members could identify their loved ones.

In the 1980s, this property, including the old armory, was bought by Oprah Winfrey and renovated, and reopened as Harpo Studios.

Winfrey and her staff came to believe the ghosts of people who perished in the Eastland tragedy, haunted the four buildings that made up this studio.

In Part ll of The Eastland Tragedy and Harpo Studios the haunting activity that has been observed in Harpo Studios are shared.

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