Harry Pedersen was the last captain of the Eastland. According to George W. Hilton, author of the definitive book on the disaster, Eastland – Legacy of the Titanic, Pedersen was born in Norway in 1860, emigrated to the US in 1885, and received both his pilot’s and master’s licenses by the turn of the century. But Pedersen captained mainly freighters and yachts. The Eastland was his first (and last) passenger steamship. And maybe that was one of the problems.
During the last twenty minutes of the tragedy, Pedersen was in the Pilot’s House on the top deck with a commanding view of the Clark Street Bridge which led east to Lake Michigan. From this high vantage point, the captain could certainly see his ship listing to port and starboard, yet Pedersen continued to make preparations to depart. He was confident that the ship would right herself. As late as 7:24 am, he was reported to have given the “stand by” signal and then pushed a buzzer, signaling the second mate to cast off the stern lines.
Finally, at a minute or so before the capsizing, Pedersen recognized the danger and ordered the gangways to be opened. But it was too late. According to George W. Hilton, the Eastland should have been evacuated around 7:10 am, twenty minutes before the actual capsizing. If the captain had had the presence of mind to give that order, maybe more passengers would have escaped. Maybe not. We’ll never know.
In doing my research, my husband, Tom, and I traveled the Great Lakes, visiting a few of the last-remaining steamships. On one of our trips to Michigan, we stopped in the rural lakeside town of Millburg where Pedersen lived and was buried. We combed the cemetery for twenty minutes, but could not find his gravestone. We’d been in the car for hours, we were in the middle of nowhere, and nature was calling. I grabbed some tissue from the car and headed into the woods. As I returned, I jumped down from the woody incline onto the cemetery grass and nearly stumbled over a stone.
And there he was – beneath an unassuming marker, nearly flat with the ground, in an obscure corner of this small cemetery. I stared down at the worn stone, and all the anger I’d been holding against Captain Harry Pedersen dissipated. His simple, lonely gravestone seemed to say it all.
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