Ashes Under Water - South Haven and the Eastland Disaster

The Eastland was built to run from South Haven to Chicago, and included a double bottom design with a water ballast system designed to "jump the bar" in South Haven.  The water ballast system was made up of a number of compartments which could be pumped out to lighten the ship and reduce its draft to get over the bar.  But reducing its water ballast caused a reduction in its stability.

In 1915, the 2,500 passenger capacity Eastland turned on its side and flooded while still tied to a Clark Street dock on the Chicago River, killing more than 800 people aboard (including 22 whole families) and shocking the nation.

No one knows the exact cause for the Eastland disaster in Chicago, but it appears to have been a malfunction of the water ballast system.  Was it caused by a mechanical failure? Debris blocking the starboard water ballast tank inlet? Operator error? Modifications to the water ballast system by the owner?

Michael McCarthy's book Ashes Under Water is a fascinating look at life and death on the Great Lakes during the age of the steamship.  The local connections and references to places that we all know make this book come alive.  One relives the horror of the accident and experiences the drama that follows as officials try to hold someone accountable for the disaster. From the wild side of turn of the century Chicago to the courtroom drama in Grand Rapids, the book recounts the events in great detail.  Clarence Darrow was able to get his clients off the hook, but was justice served?  This book is highly recommended to all fans of South Haven and Chicago history.


Michael McCarthy will speak at the Michigan Maritime Museum on Wednesday, July 29.