They’re Trying to Sink a Whaleback!

The year 2015 marked the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the passenger steamship Eastland. The disaster took the lives of 844 people. The ship had been built tall and narrow, and most of its weight was held on its upper decks. Previous incidents had shown that the ship would list when too many people stood on one side. Passenger ships like the Eastland were owned by various companies and had specific regular routes that allowed the public to get to work and move about the lakes and rivers in the area, along with affording these passengers the opportunity to take excursions.

Whaleback ship designer Alexander McDougall built one whaleback that was meant for the transportation of people instead of cargo. The whaleback steamship Christopher Columbus, after being used as a passenger ferry for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, continued its life as a passenger ship owned by the Goodrich Transportation Company, traveling a route between Milwaukee and Chicago. After the World’s Fair, another row of staterooms and an additional deck was added, making the ship very tall. Having boasted 7,000 passengers on her first voyage, the Columbus was allowed to transport 4,000 at a time on her route in Lake Michigan. After the sinking of the Eastland, the public became wary of traveling by ship, and it may be that the strange configuration of the whaleback, along with its height, made them particularly nervous about getting on board.

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board. (Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board.
(Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

A few years after the Eastland disaster, McDougall wrote about how it affected the use of the Columbus. He wrote: “About three years ago, a passenger ship in Chicago harbor rolled and drowned many people, which caused distrust in excursion steamers. To show her stability, the owners of the Christopher Columbus invited the public [to watch] on many other steamers and boats out in Lake Michigan opposite Chicago, where the Columbus, with 4,000 sacks of sand and 300 men were placed all on one side, and on the different decks, where passengers on one side would stand; then with a large tow line from her bow and a powerful tug, she was whirled about in the lake and there much satisfied the public for her patronage continued.” Captain Alexander McDougall also wrote that though the additional deck made the Columbus much taller than she had been previously, she was still “as steady as a church.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune, on August 6, 1915, printed an article about the stability test that the Columbus underwent. “Three hundred lives, the steamship worth $400,000, and the reputation of the Goodrich Transit Company were risked in the undertaking. Experts declared the test satisfactory.” The Columbus continued on as a passenger ferry until she was ultimately scrapped in 1936.