Wednesday, July 24, 2013

JULY 24 = The S.S. Eastland Disaster

" We call her the Gray Lady.... she's a woman in a long flowing gown and ornate hat.  We've seen her on security monitors. At first we thought that it was someone lost in the building.  But a guard walked down the corridor to direct her and there was no one there. Other guards have seen the woman in the halls.  She floats rather than walks and is always a shadowy figure."

This is the report of a security guard at "Harpo Studios" wherein "the Oprah Winfrey Show" was produced during it's remarkable 25 year run from 1986 through 2011 with guests from all walks of life but it seems that she had some uninvited guests from the disaster which overtook the S.S. Eastland on today's date, July 25 in 1915 and which wound up on what would become Oprah's doorstep many years later.

The Topheavy S.S. Eastland Turns a Picnic Into a Tragedy

The packet boat S.S. Eastland had been launched in May of 1903 as an interlake steamer to be used for excursions on the Great Lakes.  She was a poorly constructed ship with several design flaws which made her susceptible to listing to one side.  Basically she was too top heavy with a center of gravity which was much too high off the waterline.  In 1913, the Harbormaster at the Eastland's home port of Chicago was sent a report from Naval Architect John Deveraux York warning of this problem: "You are aware of the conditions of the S.S. "Eastland", and unless the structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident." But Mr. Devereaux's warning went unheeded. Originally built to carry 650 passengers she was redesigned in that very year to carry 2500 passengers.  And on July 24, she was carrying more than that: about 2700 to 3500 people (depending on which account you read). Mostly from the Western Electric Company, they were on their way to the company picnic, and had begun assembling for their afternoon of fun early that morning at the dock on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets.  At about 6:53 a.m. Eastland's Chief Engineer, Joseph M. Erickson noticed she was leaning dangerously to port. To this day, it is not known what caused this to happen.  Erickson attempted to compensate by opening number two ballast tank on the starboard side  But it was too late.  As the ship began to list even further to the port side (away from the dock) some of the crew began jumping to the dock, and the Captain, Harry Pederson began vainly yelling "Open the inside doors and let the people off!!" At about 7:28 the Eastland lurched all the way to port coming to rest on the river's bottom.

"A Terrible Symphony"... Eastland Crashes and Fills With Water

A total of 844 pas- sengers and crew were killed in what was to become the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck in history on the Great Lakes. Although she was only a short distance from the dock, and the river at that point was only 20 feet deep, many of the passengers had gone below on this fairly chilly morning.  Thus, they were caught underneath not only water gushing in through open ports and down three gangways, but many were crushed beneath tons of furniture, bookcases, pianos and tables.  Nearby ships rushed in to aid the passengers (above), as workmen from a nearby warehouse threw lumber and crates, anything that would float into the water for passengers to grab onto.  "Above all the cataclysmic scene there was a great and dreadful wailing sound as the cries and pleas of the drowning blended in a terrible symphony with the moans and apprehensive shrieks of those who stood helplessly on the dock or watched in disbelief and torment from the other excursion vessels." wrote one reporter. Captain Pederson went so far as to interfere with workmen who were cutting holes in the ship to get people out from below.  "Stop cutting a hole in my ship!" he shouted. He had to be arrested to keep him from interfering.  During all of this the dead who had been pulled from the river were piled up like cordwood in a make-shift morgue which was set up in Chicago's Second Street Armory building.  The legal wrangling over who was responsible for this tragedy is a separate and a fascinating story in itself. For that part of the story I can strongly recommend Michael McCarthy's book "Ashes Under Water" which I review at: 

The (Alleged?) Haunting of Oprah Winfrey's Studio....

Flash forward to the 1980's.  The building which once housed the Second Street Armory has since been converted into Harpo Studios the place wherein Oprah Winfrey's phenominally successful daytime talk show was produced (pictured, above).  A security guard that worked for Harpo for 3 years told a reporter: "I can say for sure that there are spirits walking the halls." The guard received a call from a woman that was working there late one night stating that "There are people outside my door, I can hear them laughing". She was extremely shaken. Once the guard arrived, the woman admitted to opening the door to see no one and yet the laughter and talking continued. Other reports have included hearing mournful sobbing, whispering, the sound of old time music and marching footsteps of a large crowd. Doors slam shut without anyone being around them. Mysterious orbs have appeared in photographs taken in or near the buillding. And of course there are reports of the mysterious "Gray Lady" mentioned at the top of this posting.  Ms. Winfrey is reported to have experienced some of these phenomenon, including some poltergeist activity in her own office, but this is unconfirmed, and as far as I have been able to find as of this writing, she has declined to comment on this situation in public.  Also I wish to point out that the description of the sighting given at the top of this posting DID in fact come from "the National Enquirer" so take that as you will.  But I did find essentially that same information in several different places and the source was quoted directly if anonymously as a security guard.  But IF you believe as I do that human spirits can be more or less trapped in between this world and the next at a place of great earthly stress, then  Oprah's studio certainly seems to be one such place.     

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


 by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977

"Oprah's Show is Haunted!" by John South & Denny Johnson, "The National Enquirer", June 29, 1993

+ 166.

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