How can an ocean-going steamship that sank in the north Atlantic three years prior to the capsizing in the Chicago River be held responsible? The answer comes in the aftermath of the Titanic.
We all know the tragic 1912 tale of the Titanic, but what many readers may not understand is that this beautiful luxury steamer with a passenger capacity of 2603 had only lifesaving capabilities for 1178 persons. The Titanic did possess 3560 life jackets, enough for a full passenger load plus crew. But with only 48 life buoys, 14 lifeboats, 2 cutters, and 4 collapsible rafts, she was only equipped to save one-third of those aboard. By standards set by the British Merchant Shipping Act revision of 1911, this was more than acceptable.
This Act also reasons that in any emergency, rescue vessels are in the vicinity, so that the damaged ship may use their own lifeboats to make several trips to the rescue ship and back, thus lowering the need for additional lifeboats. The Act also reasons that a certain amount of persons would be lost upon impact. On a military ship, with trained and drilled personnel, lifeboats could be evacuated fairly quickly, but on a cruise ship with inexperienced passengers and the panic that ensues from an impending disaster, even a seasoned crew could not possibly evacuate the entire vessel. Some loss of life was deemed necessary and acceptable.
In the aftermath of the Titanic, there was a worldwide outcry for Lifeboats-for-All. An international conference on Safety of Life at Sea met in London in 1913. In the United States, Wisconsin senator, Robert LaFollette presented Senate Bill 136 which was signed into law by President Wilson in March 1915. The bill, known as the LaFollette Seaman’s Act, provided that ocean-going ships must be equipped with lifeboats for 75% of passengers, the rest to be saved by the use of collapsible rafts.
For Great Lakes ships like the Eastland, special provisions were made. Assuming that these popular vessels were never too far from each other or from shore, (not alone and isolated in the North Atlantic like the Titanic) ships operating during the summer seasons need only have lifeboats for 40% of passengers with the remaining 60% accounted for in collapsible rafts.
To accommodate 2500 passengers in the 1915 season and to comply with this new Seaman’s Act, the Eastland had to be re-outfitted with 3 new lifeboats and 6 new inflatable rafts, all of which were stored on the topmost hurricane deck along with the other boats and rafts.
The Eastland was originally designed and built for 6 lifeboats. The additional weight added in compliance with the Seaman’s Act made an already unstable vessel even more top-heavy and inevitably, deadly. On the day of her capsizing in July 1915, she had a total of 11 lifeboats, 37 rafts, and a workboat.
Without a doubt, the fallout from the Titanic impacted the Eastland, but the additional weight of this life-saving equipment was not the only cause of that fatal capsizing. Several other factors came into play. As I outlined in the Author’s Notes for my novel, Eastland, the disaster occurred because a series of events unfolded in catastrophic succession. The Seaman’s Act was only the first event in that series. In future posts, I’ll outline additional causes.
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