"It was still in sinking condition, I assure you." - Ernie Pyle
After the hulk
of the Eastland was raised, the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company
needed to raise money to pay for the costly salvage operation and
comply with judicial rulings. The Eastland was moved to the North
Branch of the Chicago River to await her destiny. One visionary stepped
Captain Edward A. Evers of the Ninth Naval Training Group saw redemption
for the strickened hull. The Illinois Naval Reserve was in desparate
need of a training vessel. Refitting the Eastland would be the ideal,
cost effective solution. The auction took place on December 20,
1915. Bidding for the hulk changed leads several times, eventually
being won by Captain Evers for $46,000. His plans for the Eastland
would transform this death ship into a proud naval training vessel.
Initially designated the S.S. 25, work began in 1916 to modify
the hulk. Upper decks were cut off and the rear decks were lowered
and modified. Work continued until the advent of America's involvement
in World War I, and her plans were changed by the US Navy. The ship,
officially still the S.S. 25 at this time, would become part of
America's naval arsenal to ply the North Atlantic as a gunboat.
On January 17, 1918 the Navy took charge of modifying her for ocean
January 19th, 1918, Captain Evers wrote to Washington to request
that the ship be named after the city of Wilmette, IL, which was
his intention all along. By October 1918 she was outfitted and ready
for war, but one problem remained: the Welland Canal. The Welland
Canal connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, bypassing Niagara Falls.
The USS Wilmette, based on the superstructure of the Eastland (275')
would not fit into the locks at Welland (261'). The decision was
made to cut off the bow of the Wilmette and place a false
bow on the ship. The dismembered bow would be towed separately
through Welland, while the Wilmette would operate under her own
steam. The bow would be reattached once she reached Boston. With her bow now removed, she was released from dry dock on October 29, 1918. Work was well underway fitting her for the journey to Boston when on November 11, 1918, armistice
was declared and the war ended. Without a need for additional naval
vessels, the US Navy remanded control of the ship to the commandant of the 9th Naval District. On January 8, 1919, command was turned over to Captain Evers for the Naval Reserve. The ship retained her USS designation
when she reported for active duty on August 3, 1920.
Now radically cut down, altered and renamed the USS Wilmette,
she steamed 150,000 miles on the Great Lakes during her career,
giving thousands of sun-tanned midwestern farm boys their first
taste of rolling decks. One of them was the great columnist and
Pyle, who later recalled his
service aboard her in one of his syndicated newspaper columns:
"We sailed on the USS Wilmette, formerly known as the Eastland.
It was the ship that turned over in the Chicago River in 1915 and
drowned eight hundred twelve people. When it was raised, the Navy
bought it and painted it gray and filled it full of innocent farm
boys who wanted to be sailors. It was still in sinking condition,
I assure you. It constantly shied to the right, and once in a while
felt as though it wanted to lie down in the water."
On June 7th, 1921, the USS Wilmette steamed from her berth at the end of Randolph Street in Chicago and headed out onto Lake Michigan. Today, she would be tasked with the sinking of a captured German submarine! The story of this German U-Boat, the UC-97, will explain how and why this submarine currently lays at rest on the bottom of Lake Michigan. The UC-97 was towed out into Lake Michigan by the USS Hawk, with the Wilmette present as her final executioner. Aboard the Wilmette was Gunner's Mate J.O. Sabin, who fired the first American shell in World War I, and Gunner's Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the conflict. Out of the thirteen shells fired, ten found their mark and in ten minutes the UC-97 took her last, long dive.
The USS Wilmette became a well known fixture at the foot of Randolph
Street in Chicago, as familiar to local residents as the Wrigley
Building. Even though her checkered past still followed her in the
memories of Chicagoans, her military tour of duty seemed to lessen
public outrage and opinions of the ship itself.
OF THE GREAT LAKES NAVAL STATION
For years the Wilmette
steamed without much incident. Captain Evers petitioned for years
to get the Wilmette's water ballast system replaced with fixed ballast.
In 1926, the Wilmette was fitted with fixed ballast in the form of pig iron
to free the ballast tanks for oil and potable water storage. This modification
created some stability problems, caused by the free-surface effect in the partially-filled tanks.
In 1938, the Wilmette took a six degree list during routine manuevers, which
concerned Captain Evers. But overall she performed her duties well as a naval training vessel.
In 1933, she participated in Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition. but most noteworthy event
of her later career occurred towards the end of World War II. In August 1943, the Wilmette took
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy,
James F. Byrnes, and Harry Hopkins on a ten day cruise of McGregor and Whitefish Bays to plot war strategies.
The USS Wilmette was chosen for this secret mission
because of her comparatively plush cabins, ironically part of the structure remaining
from the Eastland. Soon afterward, the Wilmette was placed in mothballs
at Navy Pier to await her final destiny.
THE END OF
In late 1946,
the USS Wilmette was offered up for sale, as scrap, by the US Government.
Potential buyers ranged her hull, tapping her plates and gauging
her ribs in estimating the yield in tons of good melting stock.
On October 31, 1946, the successful bidder judged her to be worth $2500 and
in due time his workers attacked her with their burning torches
on the South Branch of the Chicago River. Pound by pound and ton
by ton they reduced her to fragments. Finally in early 1947, forty-four years
after she had made her celebrated debut in the cool waters of the
Black River at Port Huron, Michigan, the Eastland was no more.