Local Rockford Ties To A Horrible Tragedy

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

On July 24, 1915, Grace Stevens was more excited than she could remember. She was getting ready for her company picnic. Grace worked for the Chicago based Western Electric Company for the past three years and considered herself lucky to have secured such a position.

Grace was born in 1891 in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. Her family moved to the Rockton, Illinois area where her parents, Winfield and Belle rented a farm. Winfield passed away in 1907 when he was 48 and the family moved to Rockford to look for work. Grace’s brother Alvey seemed to have trouble finding a job. It must have seemed like the family’s fortunes had finally turned when Grace got the job with the Western Electric Company in 1912. The family moved to Chicago when Grace was offered the job.

Western Electric had quite a reputation for splurging on their employees for their annual party. This was a highlight of the year for most of these workers. It meant a special treat for the whole family for the married folks. As far as the non-married employees were concerned, it was an opportunity to meet other eligible men and women. The single women got together to shop for new dresses and hats. They also would help style each other’s hair and to dress.

The company hired five boats to carry their workers across Lake Michigan to Michigan City for the day. They warned folks to arrive early, and Grace took the warning to heart. She waited for her turn to walk up the gangplank and board the U.S.S. Eastland, the first boat scheduled to leave the dock from downtown Chicago. Even though it was just a little after 7:00 in the morning, the celebration had already begun. There was a band playing as the passengers walked onboard. People boarding were shouting and waving to folks already on the ship.

Over 7,000 tickets were sold for this day-long excursion and the crew of the Eastland made sure that every available space was filled. They were even federal inspectors along to make sure of the count for each ship. The 275-foot boat normally carried 2,500 passengers plus the crew but on this day the number reached higher.

Some of the families with younger children headed below decks so the little ones couldn’t wander off in the party-like atmosphere on the deck. Up top, folks were scrambling for seats and leaning on the rails to wave to the people left on the dock.

By 7:15 a.m., the ship was filled to capacity and though the passengers didn’t notice, it had begun to list away from the wharf. The ship listed only for a short while this time but within a few more minutes, the first of a long list of small warning signs began.

By 7:23 a.m., the Eastland began to list once again. This time, water started to enter the engine room and some of the crew climbed up ladders to the main deck. Within a few more minutes, the list had shifted to 45 degrees. Furniture began to slide, causing injuries to some of the passengers. Water also poured into the portholes in the cabins below. Each of these incidents would lead to one of the worst shipwrecks in the history of the Great Lakes.

The next time the Eastland started to list, she didn’t stop. The boat rolled slowly onto its side, the people on deck were thrown into the water. Their clothes soon weighed them down making it impossible to tread water. Folks below deck were trapped in their rooms, as doors and passageways were blocked by shifting furniture. Whole families tried to make their way off the sinking ship as the water poured inside.

One eyewitness said that after the boat flipped there was a full minute of silence, like no one could believe what they had just seen. Then the screams began. By 7:30 that morning, the boat was completely on its side in 20 feet of water, still tied to the dock. It had rolled over so quickly, there was no time to use the life-saving equipment that was on the Eastland.

This was a busy Saturday morning and hundreds if not thousands of people were on the docks conducting business. They quickly began to pull folks from the water almost immediately. There was no lack of heroes on this day.

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The water was a mass of people trying to stay afloat. There was a lot of chaos as the air filled with shouting and screaming. One eyewitness, Harlan Babcock, was a reporter for the Chicago Herald. He stated in his article about the tragedy, “In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks.”

One can only imagine the horror of the moment as parents tried to save their children and spouses, only to watch as they slipped under the water for the final time. Later, many of these family members would be found clasped in each other’s arms. The survivors would mention the sounds of people’s screams. Even years later, they would talk of hearing those screams in their nightmares.

Men with boats launched them to save as many survivors as they could reach. Others pulled the injured ones from the wreckage and commandeered cars and wagons to take them to local hospitals.

One of the many selfless helpers on this July day was Helen Repa.  Helen was on the way to the docks to catch one of the boats for the outing. She was a nurse who worked for Western Electric. She jumped aboard a passing ambulance and made her way quickly to the docks. She, too, mentioned the sounds of screaming. Helen rushed onto the hull of the overturned ship to help pull the survivors from the water and through the portholes of the ship. Some were badly injured. Helen arranged for blankets to be sent from the nearby Marshall Fields Store. She also called local restaurants and had them bring soup and hot coffee to the scene and to the hospitals for the staff.

In the end 844 people died in the disaster, including 22 whole families. The dead were carried to the Second Regiment Armory which had been turned into a makeshift morgue. The dead were lined up rows so their family members could walk down the aisle to find their loved ones. Unfortunately, some folks who came through were more interested in grabbing jewelry from the corpses than helping identify them.

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One of the dead was Grace Stevens. Her mother and brother had to walk up and down the aisles of the dead until they could find her.

The investigation of the sinking of the Eastland started even before all the dead were removed from the area. There were many aspects to the investigation of this ship. This was only a few years after the sinking of the Titanic. One of the changes that had resulted from that tragedy was that every boat needed enough lifeboats to carry 75% of the people onboard. The Eastland carried 11 lifeboats, 37 life rafts and 2.570 life preservers to accommodate for their passengers. Since the boat had been made in 1902, before this new rule, all these items needed to fit somewhere. The crew eventually stored all these items on the deck causing it to become top heavy.

This would surely have contributed to the sinking that day, but the Eastland had its share of issues even before the new rules.  In fact, some sailors claimed the ship was cursed from the start and called her a “hoo doo vessel”. Several good books have been written about the sinking and mention close calls through the years. One such near disaster took place in 1904, when she had 3,000 people onboard and another in 1906 with 2,530 passengers. One crew member described the Eastland like riding a bicycle, “wobbly at first, then steady as she got underway.”

Donations for the families poured into the American Red Cross and they disbursed the money to the family members after an interview with each family. Belle and Alvey Stevens were given $102.00 from Grace’s life insurance, $126.00 from Emergency Relief, and $630 from donations. (In today’s money it would be about 20,000.)

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The Western Electric Company also changed its hiring practice after the tragedy and gave first priority to anyone who had a family member killed in the accident. Alvey was given his sister’s spot in the company.

The headlines of the local newspapers mentioned this hometown girl who had been killed in the horrible tragedy. They also mentioned that her mother and brother traveled with Grace’s body so they could lay her to rest beside her father in the Rockton Cemetery.

Despite research, there are no records to tell of what happened to Alvey and Belle after Grace’s death. Neither is mentioned in the records for the Rockton cemetery.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2023 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events