The Lake Steamer “Rochester”: A Witness to Tragedy

The Lake Steamer “Rochester”:  A Witness to Tragedy

[Bessie Edgerton launches the Rochester (1910). Images provided by Michael Nighan]

By Michael J. Nighan

During the last decades of the 19th. Century, through the first decades of the 20th – in the era before the automobile became the primary mode of transportation — Rochesterians seeking the diversions of a scenic vacation had to look no further than the shores of Charlotte. Not to the beaches, but to the Lake Ontario excursion steamers which called at the port on a regular basis.

In a time when the trip and the mode of transportation were as important as the destination, floating palaces, some carrying hundreds of passengers, plied the lake, running between Charlotte, Youngstown, Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, Quebec, Ogdensburg and the Thousand Islands.  Nor was Lake Ontario alone as a locale for lake steamer travel as scores of these ships sailed the waters of the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence River.

The Rochester

One of the most impressive of the Lake Ontario steamers was built in Michigan and when launched in 1910 was christened the Rochester, the champagne bottle-breaking ceremony being performed by Bessie Edgerton, daughter of Rochester mayor Hiram Edgerton.  Although intended as a symbol of rest and relaxation, within five years the Rochester would be present as a silent witness to one of the greatest, and certainly the most bizarre, maritime disasters in American waters.  The capsizing of a ship still moored to its dock on the Chicago River, a tragedy which resulted in 844 deaths.

Graceful as a great white waterfowl

June 17, 1910 dawned warm and bright over Rochester.  By early afternoon crowds of spectators had lined both sides of the Genesee River in Charlotte to see the Rochester begin her career as a lake steamer. (1)

Charlotte (1909). Steamer dock circled

Owned and operated by the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company of Montreal, the Rochester was 246 feet long, and featured 140 passenger cabins.  Newspaper accounts of her furnishings marveled at, “the mahogany paneling, the rubber tile floors, the richly decorated walls, the parlor staterooms, the spacious salons and richly-carpeted floors and all the complete equipment which is included in the floating palace”.

Pulling away from the Charlotte boat dock on River Street at the end of Latta Road, a location shared with the New York Central Railroad depot (a building which still stands today), the Rochester,graceful as a great white waterfowl” in the words of the Democrat and Chronicle, was packed with over 500 guests, including most of Rochester’s political, business and social leaders who were to be treated to a 3 ½ hour cruise and buffet to celebrate the ship’s inauguration into service.

Lake steamer dock in Charlotte (1914)

“As the big boat made her way past the village of Charlotte on the left and Summerville on the right, there was a screaming of whistles from along the waterfront, a cloud of handkerchiefs broke forth from the spectators gathered on the docks, and a miniature cannon at the boathouse belched forth its emphatic approval of the most notable event in the annals of Rochester’s harbor.” Democrat and Chronicle, July 18, 1910 (2)  

Over the next few years, the Rochester sailed between the Lake Ontario ports on the American side, its service bolstered by advertisements such as:

The Rochester is a new twin screw steamer, built expressly for passenger service on the Niagara-Rochester-Thousand Islands line, by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company, who was instructed by the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company to spare no expense in the construction and equipment of the steamer…Every stateroom has running water and many of them are connected with private bathrooms.  The large observation dining room is located on the main deck and the service is of a high order of excellence….The steamer is luxuriously furnished throughout and is undoubtedly the finest steamer of her type ever placed in commission on fresh water.”  

“Getting away from it all on the Rochester”

However, by 1913 the Richelieu and Ontario line had been taken over by the far-larger Canadian Steamship Lines (who would eventually own over 150 ships on the Great Lakes), and it seems that the Rochester’s role began to be diminished. At least to the extent that in 1915 it was decided that it would be more profitable to lease the ship to the Indiana Transport Company to run excursions on Lake Michigan than to continue to operate it on Lake Ontario.

As a result, on a rainy July 24, 1915 the Rochester found itself moored to a dock along the Chicago River near the city’s downtown business district, lined up  with four other lake steamers, the Petosky, the Theodore Roosevelt, the Racine and the Eastland, all five ships having been chartered for the day by the Western Electric Company to carry almost 7,000 of their Hawthorne Works employees to the company picnic at Michigan City, Indiana  on the opposite side of Lake Michigan.

The planned trip of the Eastland and the Rochester

“With that fatal list to port lead the papers to report that the Eastland she would sail the lakes no more” (3)

The Eastland, scheduled to be the first of the ships to leave, naturally attracted the early crowds as those sailing on her would have the most time to spend at the picnic.  Although well-known among Great Lakes sailors as an unstable ship (a “crank” in nautical parlance) which tended to rock from side to side as it sailed (a problem which several attempts had failed to correct), by 7:00 am over 2,500 passengers had been crammed aboard the ship, most staying on the upper decks.  As a band played rag time and passengers danced, oblivious to the fact that no life vests had been handed out, the Eastland began to list and the crew responded by attempting to add water ballast.  As the rocking back and forth became more severe the passengers, confused by crew orders to move this way and that to counteract the listing, froze in place, further upsetting the ship’s stability.

The Eastland disaster

At about 7:30 am, as many of the crew literally abandoned ship, the Eastland gave one final lurch away from the dock and capsized onto its side in the river, trapping hundreds of passengers below decks and throwing hundreds more, many unable to swim and all dressed in the heavy clothing of that era, into the water. (4)  Despite immediate rescue attempts by many in the crowds which had gathered to see the ships off, it would eventually be found that 844 passengers and crew had died, giving the Eastland the fourth highest death toll of any maritime disaster in American waters. (5)

Although some of the crews of the Eastland’s fellow chartered excursion ships joined the rescue effort, the disaster occurred so rapidly that the crews on the Rochester and several other nearby ships were unaware of what was transpiring and continued to load passengers.  Even after it became obvious that something had gone terribly wrong, crowds of picnickers continued to board the Rochester which, incredibly, proceeded to sail on schedule.

“Tragedy Has No Effect on Other Excursion Boats” – Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1915

While rescuers a few yards up the river worked unceasingly… taking water soaked bodies of men, women and children from the Eastland, pleasure seekers unmindful of the grim irony of the situation, boarded the many lake excursion steamers.  There was no break in the schedule of the lake pleasure and route boats…and apparently no break in the schedule of the lake enthusiasts who gathered aboard the ships in great numbers….At the Rush Street docks, the Petosky and the Rochester left on scheduled time.”

25 Jul 1915, Sun, Chicago Tribune

The Eastland would later be raised and sold to the US Navy who operated it as a training ship on Lake Michigan (after pouring many tons of concrete into the hold of the ship to finally correct the ship’s instability).  Although a grand jury later indicted the ship’s builders, owners and the captain, and despite overwhelming evidence of the Eastland’s perpetual stability problems, as well as proof that government inspectors had neglected their duties by declining to cite the ship for safety violations, the courts failed to hold anyone responsible for the tragedy.   Litigation against members of the crew for failing to assist the Eastland’s passengers dragged on for 20 years with no crew member ever sentenced to jail time or a fine.        

What’s in a Name?

In 1916 the Rochester was returned to the Canadian Steamship Lines but was taken out of service due to an onboard typhoid outbreak.  Renamed the Cape Eternity in 1920 (an unfortunate naming choice given the ship’s association with the Eastland tragedy), the ship continued to sail the Great Lakes through 1929.  Mothballed until 1935 when it was again sold, it was once more renamed, this time as the Georgian and put into service on Georgian Bay.  When WWII broke out the ship was acquired by the Canadian government for use as a floating barracks in Halifax, Nova Scotia and yet again (unofficially) renamed, becoming the Avalon II.

In 1936 the ship was sold to the Wah Shang Steamship Company in Shanghai, China.  Now known as the Ha Sin, although never intended for ocean travel, the ship was successfully sailed up the St. Lawrence, down the Atlantic coast to Panama, through the canal, and across the Pacific to China where it suffered the final indignity of being struck by bombs and sunk in 1949 during a Nationalist Chinese air raid on Communist forces attacking Shanghai.  The hulk was later raised and scrapped.

The “great white waterfowl” was no more.



(1)  This particular Rochester was just one of at least a dozen Great Lakes and US Navy ships that apparently have been named after the city.

(2) Not coincidentally, Mayor Edgerton chose the June 18 cruise to announce his plan for a “Greater Rochester”, the latest in a long line of proposals by the City of Rochester to annex the Village of Charlotte.

Over the years Rochester had grabbed (with state approval) large chunks of Brighton, Gates and Irondequoit. and for many years had been casting envious eyes on Charlotte’s waterfront situation, seeing its acquisition as a way to make Rochester a true port city in its own right.  Arguing that Rochester and Monroe County were suffering economically because Charlotte could not afford to dredge and expand it’s port facilities, which in turn meant that larger lake vessels could not utilize the harbor, Rochester finally overcame opposition and at midnight, December 31, 1915, the Village of Charlotte’s existence came to an end with its incorporation into the City of Rochester.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 01 Jan 1916. Discussion of the annexation of Charlotte.

(3) Folk singer Lee Murdoch has written an excellent ballad about the Eastland tragedy, which is partially quoted here.  In line with some sources, he uses 835 as the death toll.

(4) Sadly, the Eastland’s compliance with a new post-Titanic federal regulation, which required lifeboats to be added for all passengers, had made the ship even more unstable.  Further exacerbating the problem was the decision by the owners the year before to replace some of the ship’s wooden flooring with several tons of poured concrete.

(5) The three American shipping disasters with a greater loss of life were:

Sultana – Mississippi steamboat carrying returning Union prisons of war, destroyed by boiler explosion in 1865 – 1,800 fatalities

USS Arizona – US Navy battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 – 1,177 fatalities

General Slocum – East River passenger steamer destroyed by fire in 1904 – 1,000+ fatalities


About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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