Launched in the spring of 1903 in Port Huron, Michigan, the Str. Eastland began her career as a Great Lakes passenger vessel under the flag of the Michigan Steamship Company. In her first year of service it was discovered that her draft was inadequate to clear a sandbar in Lake Michigan near the entrance to her home port of South Haven. In addition, her speed did not meet company expectations. As a result she underwent a refit in 1904 to reduce her draft and increase her speed – the first in a long series of modifications made by various owners that would end in tragedy eleven years later.

After twice nearly capsizing on Lake Michigan shortly after leaving her dock for Chicago, the Eastland was further modified and then sold in 1905 to the Chicago-South Haven Line. In 1907 investors from Cleveland, Ohio, bought the Eastland and transferred her to Lake Erie. For the next two years she flew the flag of the Lake Shore Navigation Company on round trips from Cleveland to a popular amusement park at Cedar Point, Ohio. In 1909 she was sold to another Cleveland owner, the Eastland Navigation Company, who kept her on the Cleveland to Cedar Point run for the next five years. During her seven years on Lake Erie several design changes were made in an attempt to make her more stable and/or increase her capacity. Following the Titanic disaster of 1912 the company added more lifeboats and lowered her capacity to meet new federal safety regulations and calm a nervous public. As a result, the 1913 season was a financial failure and the Eastland was again put up for sale. The next year she was purchased by the Chicago-St. Joseph Steamship Company and returned to service on Lake Michigan.

In July, 1915, the Eastland was one of several boats chartered by the Western Electric Company to transport their employees from downtown Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana, for the annual company picnic. While still tied to her dock in the Chicago River the Eastland unexpectedly began to list. Despite frantic efforts to right her, she continued to fall away from the dock. From nearby buildings and bridges thousands watched in horror as the boat rolled onto her port side, killing 844 of the over 2,500 people aboard – many of them women and children. Now nearly forgotten, the Eastland disaster remains one of the largest losses of life during peace time in U.S. history. The Eastland was raised from the Chicago River and, in 1917, was transferred to the U.S. Navy where she was converted to a training vessel, the U.S.S. Wilmette. She was scrapped in Chicago in 1948.

In a postcard printed in Germany during her years on Lake Erie, a golden sunset frames the Eastland at her Cedar Point dock as she prepares to return to Cleveland. Cedar Point was at that time – and remains today – a large amusement park and resort located on a peninsula near Sandusky, Ohio, where this card was published. Excursion steamers like the Eastland ferried thousands of passengers to and from the park daily during the warm summer months. For the cost of a round trip ticket and admission to the park, one could escape the heat and humidity of the city to enjoy cool lake breezes and a fun-filled day at Cedar Point.

In the scene above thick, black smoke pours from the Eastlandís stacks – her steam is up, and soon she will cast off her lines to begin the journey back to Cleveland. Perhaps her famous steam calliope is puffing out a tune, as it did when she left for the park that morning. Once underway, her orchestra will begin to play popular songs of the day and dozens of couples will fill her spacious dance floor. Brightly lit from stem to stern, the Eastland will enter Cleveland harbor and tie up at East Ninth Street Pier where tomorrow, once again, she'll carry hundreds of eager passengers to Cedar Point and back.

Builder: Jenks Shipbuilding Company
Location: Port Huron , MI
Launched: May 6, 1903
Official Number: 200031
Vessel Length: 275’ Gross Tonnage: 1,961
Vessel Width: 38’ 2” Net Tonnage: 1,218
Vessel Height: 19’ 6” Hull Material: Steel

2 triple-expansion (21” + 39” + 56” x 30”), built by Jenks

Boilers: 4 Scotch (13.5’ x 12’), built by Jenks
Horsepower: 3,500 Steam Pressure: 200 psi
Ownership Changes
1903 - 1907 Michigan Steamship Co.
1907 - 1909 Lake Shore Navigation Co.
1909 - 1914 Eastland Navigation Co.
1914 - 1916 Chicago-St. Joseph Steamship Co.
1917 - 1948 U.S. Navy
Notes: Rebuilt at Chicago Shipbuilding Co. for U.S. Navy as the training gunboat U.S.S. Wilmette in 1917.
Scrapped at Chicago, IL, in 1948.
Click on each image to view a larger version
Two additional postcard views (left and center) also date from the Eastland’s years on Lake Erie, where she served as an excursion steamer transporting passengers between Cleveland and Cedar Point near Sandusky, Ohio. Note that both cards highlight the safety of the ship: “Strictly Fireproof” and “in Sight of Shore all the way.” The view of the disaster (right), taken from a fire tug in the Chicago River, shows the Eastland’s hull resting on the river bottom as rescue efforts continue.

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