The first Eastland ghost sightings?

In the summer of 1915, the Eastland capsized in the Chicago river, resulting in the tragic deaths of some 844 people. Reports that the place where it capsized was haunted have circulated ever since, along with rumors that ghosts from the disaster are haunting the Second Regimental Armory (now Harpo studios), where most of the bodies were taken. Other bodies were taken to a temporary morgue set up beneath the Wells Street bridge. Incidentally, none were taken to Chicago Historical Society building, which is now the Excalibur Club (one theory states that this story went around because of pictures of the bodies labeled “Chicago Historical Society” – referring to the institute that provided the photo, not the place where it was taken).

But the ship began to be rumored to be haunted almost immediately.

Some months after the tragedy, the ship was sold to the U.S. Navy, who used it as a training vessel on the lake for years. Crowds line the river to boo it as it was brought out to the lake to be stripped of its old name and repurposed. But between being righted and being sold, it was docked at the Halsted Street bridge. It was there that the “haunted ship” rumors began.

The ship was in bad shape. The railings were twisted, the upper deck a wreck. By night, passers-by would hear groans and creaks coming from the ship and would run like hell to get away from it.

Meanwhile, on board lived Captain Edwards, who was given the lonely job of living aboard the ship. Edwards told the Chicago Daily News that he didn’t believe the ship was haunted, but admitted to getting spooked. “It’s all right in the day. Just a matter of killing time,” he said. “At night it’s a bit different…when the noises on the bridge die down and the river begins to talk, sort of lapping against the dock and against the boat like it was full of secrets. That’s all imagination, and I wouldn’t mention it except I’ve been listening to it for ninety-seven nights…..sometimes there’s a bang towards the stern and a queer creaking…somethings something begins straining and ends by giving out a screech. I’m not saying I’m afraid….When there’s an extra loud bang I get out of bed and take a lantern and go see….every night nearly, someetimes two or three times.”

The captain noted, though, that he was more afraid of living people than dead ones. Some people were very angry about what happened on the ship and wanted to blow it up.

He laughed when asked about ghosts. “I’ve never seen any,” he said. “If there’s a place where ghosts are likely to haunt this is the one. But the creaking and the screeching are only pieces of timber falling. I tell you what, though. You should come past here at 10 o’clock at night and watch the people cross the bridge. They don’t stop to look long. They sort of scoot over and sometimes I hear one cry out ‘Look, there’s a light!’ and start to run. The light’s me, of course, sitting in the pilot house.”

Note: this is not the same guy who was the captain of the Eastland – that was Harry Pederson, who, though eventually absolved of any blame for the disaster, was probably busy hiding from angry mobs at this time.

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