Shakespeare's Juliet would argue that there is nothing to a name. What something/someone is called isn't important. It's the essence of that something/someone (Romeo) that really matters. As much as I adore the Bard, I would argue his logic in the case of the SS Eastland. Given the other possibilities for names, 'Eastland' seems to be perfect.
As far as Great Lakes steamers go, Eastland is an unusual name. A great many ships were named after places: The City of Kalamazoo, the United States, the Kenosha, the Missouri, the Illinois, the City of Mackinac. Other ships bore the name of a famous individual: the Theodore Roosevelt or the grand ole whaleback, the Christopher Columbus. Some were named for their owners: the Hattie B. Pereue or the J.D. Marshall.
So then, where did Eastland come from? Unlike so many of the tragic stories associated with this doomed steamer, the tale of her naming is quite humorous.
The Eastland was built by the Michigan Steamship Company to be a rival to the City of Kalamazoo for the popular and lucrative daily runs between Chicago and South Haven, Michigan. The Eastland would make two roundtrips daily, the first departing Chicago at 9:00 AM and the second departing Chicago at 5:00 PM. This later trip would be an overnight journey with the fruit cargo from Michigan arriving on the Chicago docks in the early morning, just in time for the opening of the produce markets along South Water Street (now Wacker Drive).
Dunkley-Williams Company, the owners of the City of Kalamazoo, knew that their older, smaller, wooden propeller ship would be no competition against a new, swift, steel-hull steamer like the one being designed for the Michigan Steamship Company. So Dunkley-Williams decided to build a new ship of their own. Both companies wanted to christen their new ship, the City of South Haven, but of course, only one boat could boast that name. In October of 1902, the race began.
The builders of the Eastland had a head start on the contract, but the ship builders for Dunkley-Williams proved to be faster. On March 23, 1903, Dunkley-Williams launched their new City of South Haven. The Michigan Steamship Company was forced to find another name. But they didn’t have a contingency plan, so they announced a public contest. The rules were simple.
According to George W. Hilton, in his book, Eastland, Legacy of the Titanic, the name could contain no more than 8 letters, and had to be of Native American origin or “suggestive of speed, comfort and beauty.” The Michigan Steamship Company received 565 entries. Many were duplicates. There were 10 entries for Michigan, 22 for Hiawatha, 8 for Pokagon, and 13 for the Majestic. But unfortunately, these names had already been taken by other ships.
So in April 1903, as their new ship was nearing completion, the owners selected the one and only, unique entry, submitted by Mrs. David Reid of South Haven. Mrs. Reid received $10.00 and a season pass as her prize. And on May 6, 1903, the glorious new steamer, the SS Eastland was launched into history. She has and will remain, the one and only, unique ship of her kind.
In a weird aside, the sketch of the Eastland found at the beginning of my novel, Eastland, (and as my Chicago Now avatar), was created by tattoo artist, Thomas Reid. Any relationship to Mrs. David Reid? Who knows? Maybe Tom should check out his family tree and let me know what he finds.
Until next time, remember the 844!
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Tom Reid https://www.facebook.com/staydowntattoos
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