Do you ever get that weird feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something? That fate is giving you a gentle nudge in a specific direction for reasons you don’t understand?
If so, have I got a story for you!
If not, well, it’s entirely possible that I am the only person who has ever felt this way, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been delusional about things.
Let me give a little background information to set this up.
I grew up in a suburb of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but my father’s four sisters owned a cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan in the little touristy town of South Haven. I spent every summer of my childhood at that cottage and eventually ended up living in an even smaller town somewhere in between Kalamazoo and South Haven.
South Haven has always been important to me, as has the Big Lake. Lake Michigan. Mishigami, the Ojibwa word for “large lake.”
Despite my love of water, however, I was never really allowed to go out on the big lake in any boats. My aunts and Dad had some very strict rules about boating since their own brothers were killed in a tragic boating accident in 1954. Totally understandable, but understanding it didn’t do anything to stop my curiosity about boats, especially when it came to the subject of Great Lakes shipwrecks.
Stay with me here. I’ll get to my point eventually.
I first learned about the Eastland disaster when I was in college. Not only did it have connections with my little town of South Haven, it was a fascinating, horrifying tragedy that should be more famous. Everyone should know about it, but very few people actually do.
The Eastland was a steamship designed specifically to accommodate South Haven’s shallow harbor, and was launched in 1903. Its owners originally chose to name it the City of South Haven, but that name was taken by another ship launched a few months earlier. Thus, it was renamed the Eastland and began its nautical life shrouded in superstition because sailors believe it is bad luck to rename a ship.
After a long run of bad luck and near-misses as it changed ownership over the years, the Eastland became a passenger ship with a reputation for being unstable and prone to listing. On July 24, 1915, it lived up to its reputation by rolling over on its side while still tied to the dock in Chicago with over 2500 passengers on board.
844 of those passengers died. That’s the most lives lost in any single vessel disaster on any of the Great Lakes. 70% of the victims were aged twenty-five or younger. Twenty-two entire families were completely wiped out.
And yet …. very few people have ever heard of the Eastland. I wanted to understand why.
I’ve studied and researched the Eastland off and on over the years. Someday, I kept telling myself, I’m going to write a historical fiction set around the story of the tragedy. But, as anyone who’s read my blog probably knows by now, I’m pretty easily distracted. For a lot of years, I didn’t write anything at all, much less any kind of fiction about the Eastland.
A few years ago, the museum in South Haven had an Eastland exhibit. I went to see it, of course. I listened to a lecture about it as well.
Cool. Totally fascinating. I got excited about it again.
Oooh, look, something shiny!
I worked front desk at a hotel in South Haven for few years. One busy summer night, I saw a couple of men lugging cameras and video equipment as they checked in with the other desk clerk. When I asked her about it later, she told me they were in town to do some interviews for a documentary they were making about “some big boat that tipped over a Chicago a long time ago.”
I may or may not have broken a few rules about guest confidentiality that evening, but I ended up having a very nice chat with Chuck Coppola, who was in town to interview author Michael McCarthy about his book Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America.
Mr. Coppola, by the way, is a very kind man who shared his knowledge and encouraged me to write my historical fiction. He even told me I could use his name as a reference if I ever wanted to contact Mr. McCarthy for more information. For the record, I haven’t done so yet. That’s just too scary at this point.
More shiny things happened. I wrote other books. Researched the Eastland some more but never quite figured out what story I wanted to tell about it. Moved a few times, settled into my old house, started a renovation.
Okay, this is where it gets weird.
I’ve gone through five contractors and learned a lot of strange things about my house. Found an old bamboo pole, some broken china, a dipstick, and a mummified bat inside the walls when the old lath and plaster came down. Yesterday, though, my contractor found a real treasure.
Tucked neatly inside the walls of my future office was a folded brochure for the City of South Haven and Petoskey for the summer of 1917. Two years after the Eastland disaster.
1917 was the last year the City of South Haven would sail as a passenger ship on the Great Lakes. In April of 1918, it was purchased by the U.S. Navy.
That’s a pretty narrow window, right? The shipwreck I’ve studied so diligently over the years happened in 1915, and the flyer for its competition from 1917 somehow ended up inside the plaster walls of the house I am renovating in 2020.
What are the odds?
As I carefully looked through the old pages, the pictures and descriptions attacked my brain. That’s the only way I can describe it. By the time I went to bed last night, I knew my characters and their stories. I’ve got it. It’s in there.
I don’t want to jinx it by saying any more about it just yet. I don’t want to mess with fate, or the universe, or my 54 year-old brain that tends to forget things. I just want to write it down before I see anything shiny.
And yeah, have I got a story for you.