Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Eastland Disaster, An Overlooked Sequel to the Titanic

Jul 31, 2005 1:23 pm

The Eastland Disaster, An Overlooked Sequel to the Titanic

In his blog, my friend, David Mayer tells the overlooked story of the Eastland disaster on the Chicago River in 1915. It provided a grim illustration of how governmental safety regulations can have unintended and fatal results. According to Mayer

one of those great ironies of history that the Eastland disaster was caused by the government’s reaction to the sinking of the Titanic – specifically, by the La Follette Seamen’s Act of 1915, named for the “Progressive” Republican from Wisconsin, Senator Robert La Follette, which among other things required additional lifeboats and rafts on all American passenger ships. The mandate of the La Follette Act extended even to Great Lakes steamers, even though they were built differently – their hulls had much shallower drafts – than trans-Atlantic liners, making them unstable and top-heavy when loaded with the extra lifeboats and rafts the Act required. The owners of the Eastland, in partial satisfaction of the provisions of the La Follette Act (which was set to come into force later in the year 1915), added a number of boats and rafts to the ship’s top deck, just three weeks before the Western Electric picnic. The addition of those lifeboats, which were never used – the ship had capsized and sunk too quickly for them to be any use – was a crucial cause of the disaster. Something caused the ship to list to one side; and before it even left its dock, the ship overturned, trapping many of the victims in the lower decks.

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Charles V. Mutschler - 8/2/2005

For starters, railroad equipment is coupled or uncoupled. Leave "decoupled" for ignorant journalists and other uneducated people. The Janney coupler, precursor to today's coupler, couples on impact, and is uncoupled by using a leaver at the side of the car. The brakeman still has to reach between the cars to couple the air hoses. However, these uncouple automatically when the cars separate.

S. Dagnal Rowe summed up a lot of it - and I would simply add the words "Liberty of Contract." You were free to work for anyhbody you liked. If you didn't want the job, the railroad was happy to see you leave. Someone else would take it. Suits against railroads, mining companies, and other industrial corporations tended to fail, and the company could often use a due diligence defense, arguing that a careful man would have gotten his fingers clear of the coupler pockets when the cars came together.

To a generation used to two-way radio and cellular phone communication, the dangers of railroading (or most industrial employment) are hard to understand. Hand and lantern signals could be misconstrued, and the results could be fatal. A good overview is contained in John White's work on the American Railroad Freight Car.

On the other hand, Albro Martin has argued that the failure of the US railroad system in 1917 was due to excessive federal regulation in the form of rate-setting powers which allowed the federal gtovernment to set freight rates lower than the amount needed to allow for capital improvement to the railroads and a fair return on investment.

As I said, federal regulation of the railroad industry has been a mixed blessing. In some ways (safety) I think it has been quite positive, but in others, less so.

Charles V. Mutschler

David Timothy Beito - 8/1/2005

Thanks! It be great if someone (hint) did some research on this.

S. Dagnal Rowe - 8/1/2005

Ok, just found about 17 typos in my message. Sorry about that!

S. Dagnal Rowe - 8/1/2005

I just finished my first year at Vanderbilt Law School and remember reading a case which touched upon this problem in my Legal Process class. I also remember asking myself the very question Professor Beito just posed. These are a few of the reasons I came up with for why worker liability suits might have been inadequate to motivate the railroad companies to adopt automatic couplers and decouplers without Congressional intervention:

1. If the injured worker was the slightest bit negligent himself, the affirmative defense of "contributory negligence" could be invoked by the company as a total bar to recovery;
2. Workers were thought to have "assumed the risk" of these sorts of injuries when they took the job (again totally barring recovery);
2. The Fellow Servant Rule prevented an injured worker from suing the company for injuries resulting from the negligent acts of co-workers.
3. Any negligent co-worker (for example an absent-minded conductor) who would still be amenable to suit might well be to poor to be worth suing.
4. It costs a lot of money to litigate against a big-time railroad companies and before the rise of contingency fee arrangements, it was very hard for injured workers or their windows to afford to bring a claim.
5. There was probably not such an animal at the time as a class action suit, and I believe rules of joinder were much more strict at the time, so I think it was probably quite difficult for similarly-situated plaintiffs to pool resources and consolidate their cases.

I hope this is of some help. I should mention that (like most L&P readers), I'm convinced that if properly-libertarian legal rules had been in place, this inefficient and inhumane outcome would have neither emerged nor persisted, let alone "required" Congressional action.

David T. Beito - 8/1/2005

Interesting. I am sure that this wasn't always true. I wonder why worker liability suits, which were growing increasingly more costly by the turn of the century, didn't motivate the railroads to install safety improvements.

Charles V. Mutschler - 7/31/2005

An interesting point to ponder. I hadn't considered the Eastland's sinking as a result of unexpected consequences.

On the other hand, the industry I research, was a real beneficiary from government safety regulations. In 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, locomotives and cars were small, and trains relatively light. The coupling and braking systems in use at the time were primitive at best. Cars were coupled together with a large iron link, looking like a piece of the Titanic's anchor chain, which was held into a cast-iron pocket on the end of each car with an iron pin. To couple cars together, the brakeman had to go between cars, guide the link into the pocket, drop the pin in place, and get his hands out of the way - quickly, if he wanted to keep all his fingers. Uncoupling cars alo required a brakeman to go between cars to pull the pin.

Once the cars were coupled together, the train could get under way. When the engineer needed to stop, he whistled for brakes, and the brakemen climbed onto the car tops of freight cars, or went out onto the end platforms of coaches to apply the brakes by tightening the brake wheel on a car, then running to the next to repeat the process.

Obviously the coupling and braking technologies were not conducive to moving heavy trains, because a heavy train could break a coupling, and too heavy a train could not be controlled safely with hand brakes.

So do you suppose the railroad industry rushed to buy George Westinghouse's air brake, or Eli Janney's automatic car coupler (both going through the patent process about the same time the transcontinental railroad was being finished in 1869)? Not at all - it took an act of Congress - literally - to bring about the adoption of these features. The Safety Appliance Act was supposed to become effective in 1893, but the railroads managed to wangle an extension to 1903. At that time all equipment used in interstate commerce had to have air brakes and automatic couplers.

The public saw 1903 as an end to the carnage that was the inexpensive approach to railroading using link and pin couplers and hand brakes. The railroad industry moaned about how much it was going to cost to comply - and then discovered that the automatic couplers took a heavier load without failing, and the air brake allowed for the safe movement of twice as heavy a train as had been possible with hand brakes. Result - the big winners were the comapnies, now able to run longer, heavier trains with the same sized crew they had used with the more primitive equipment.

So I won't say all government regulation has been a failure.

Charles V.Mutschler

Kenneth R Gregg - 7/31/2005

I was looking at his comments about the Eastland Disaster. A clear example of a government-created tragedy.
Just Ken