Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Post # 25

Quote for the day. "Those who sail the Lakes are men of iron -- men of iron nerve, iron will, and iron faith." William Ratigan, Great Shipwrecks and Survivors. 1977.


Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America
by Michael McCarthy

On the morning of July 24, 1915, 2,500 men, women, and children dressed in their finery hurried aboard the SS Eastland, berthed on the Chicago River at South Water Street, for a short voyage to Michigan City, Indiana where the Western Electric Company of Chicago would hold its annual employee picnic. The last passengers had just boarded the huge passenger liner, which was still tied to the pier when the great ship first tipped one way, recovered and rolled in the opposite direction. Then it tipped yet again, its shorelines snapped and in the blink of an eye, the Eastland capsized. It would prove to be the worst maritime disaster in Great Lakes history with 844 fatalities including the deaths of 22 entire families. Ashes Under Water is the masterfully told story of the disaster, the ship's troubled history, and the epic court battle in which the ship's owners tried to pin the blame for the tragedy on the Eastland's engineer, who was represented by Clarence Darrow, and several federal inspectors.

The Eastland was built in 1903 by a Port Huron shipbuilder for a South Haven, Michigan shipping company. The newly formed company hoped to entice fares from the town's growing number of tourists from Chicago and to ship fruit from the area's bountiful orchards to the huge market lying just across the lake. But South Haven presented a navigation problem the ship had to overcome. Just offshore of South Haven's port was a sandbar that wouldn't allow the passage of large ships with deep drafts. As the author deftly explains the solution was water as ballast which could be pumped in or out of huge holding tanks. Pump out the ballast and the ship passes over the sandbar and then the tanks are filled. With the ballast restored the ship rides properly through the seas. The water could also be pumped to side tanks to counter passengers or cargo causing the ship to list.

But pumping ballast in or out could get tricky and on two occasions the ship unexpectedly listed 25-degrees with screaming passengers and chairs sliding across the ship's deck. When the South Haven company went broke the Eastland was purchased by a Cleveland company to transport pleasure seekers from that city to Cedar Point sixty miles to the west. The ship got such a poor reputation for safety the company ran ads and posted rewards for anyone who could prove it unsafe. Once again the ship failed to make money and was sold to a St. Joseph, Michigan company hoping to attract more Chicagoans to their resort town known as, "The Coney Island of the West." Less than a year after purchasing the Eastland it turned turtle in Chicago.

The author has written an enthralling, authoritative, and a heart-breaking account of the Eastland's Great Lakes career and paired it with the story of the ship's chief engineer's career. Joseph Erickson was an immigrant who worked tirelessly to become accredited as a chief engineer. On the day of the tragedy he showed himself a hero and as payment, the owners of the company tried to hang the responsibility for the ship's demise around his neck. Great Lake sailors contributed enough money to hire Clarence Darrow as his lawyer.

Michael McCarthy spent years researching this book and it shows on every page. It is an important contribution to Great Lakes and Michigan history, in addition to being an immensely readable and moving story.
Ashes Under Water by Michael McCarthy. Lyons Press, 2018, $25.95

She Stopped for Death
by Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli

Beaver Falls is a fictional Michigan village located somewhere between Kalkaska and Mancelona and yet a stone's throw from Lake Michigan. The quiet little village has more than its share of eccentrics and topping the list is Emily Sutton, a once-famous poet, who seems nuttier than a bag of pistachios. The poet lives in near total seclusion in an old family home down the street from Dora Weston whose yard sports one of those little libraries on a post where readers can leave a book and take a book.

Living with Dora is her daughter Jenny who has come home to lick her wounds after a painful divorce. Their constant visitor, friend, and next door neighbor is the irascible Zoe Zola, a Little Person, who writes big books on famous literary figures. The threesome often enjoy an evening sitting on Dora's front porch shooting the breeze and catching up on Beaver Falls gossip. One evening as they're discussing village affairs a shadowy figure totters down the street in an ankle length old dress, walks up to the little library, and instead of leaving and taking a book just leaves a sheaf of papers.

When Dora checks the little box she discovers hand-written poems. Dora, Jenny, and Zoe are agog over the apparent re-emergence of a celebrated poet. As an act of friendship, Jenny and Zoe visit Horizon Books in Traverse City and select a sampling of current poets and leave the books on Emily's porch. Emily returns the next night to Dora's porch and tells the trio she appreciated the books and needs help.  Emily's sister who lived with her for years has run off with a man, and a cousin from Traverse City who dropped off her groceries has unexplainably quit. Would someone do her grocery shopping? Zoe reluctantly volunteers and soon begins to suspect Emily and her self-imposed isolation are even stranger than they appear.

The news of Sutton's appearance back in the world takes Beaver Falls by storm and a poetry reading is set up by the village's lone grand dame and a soldout reading is booked for the Traverse City Opera House. Ah, but the train is about to leave the tracks. A gruesome murder leads back to Beaver Falls, the Beaver Falls reading is just plain weird, and Emily Sutton is moving the needle from eccentric to completely unhinged. 

Buzzelli writes with a keen eye for character, sharp wit, clever literary asides, and knows smalltown life in northern Michigan. The pace is leisurely and the plot builds from the quaintly odd to a full-blown novel of terror with a great twist at the end. This is billed as a cozy mystery and I just don't understand the term. What's cozy about a mystery, unless it's where did that darling cat find that ball of soft and fuzzy Alpaca yarn?  A third mystery in the series is due out this fall.

She Stopped for Death by Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli. Crooked Lane Books, 2017, $25.99

Secret Detroit: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure
by Karen Dybis

In the introduction to this consistently engaging and wonderfully eccentric book the author defines secret, "as something unusual, surprising, or extraordinary." At first glance, the book includes many famous and well-known sites, places, and attractions like  Comerica Park or the Detroit Public Library, either of which hardly qualifies as secret by any definition. But no matter how well known the site, place, or thing the author more often than not, manages to surprise the reader with something they were previously unaware of. Or in other words, surprise readers with the unusual or extraordinary. 

Then there are the places one never heard about before cracking this book. Like the 2.2 acre Beth Olem Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1860, that is completely surrounded by GM's Poletown Plant. It is open to the public twice a year and visitors must pass through plant security gates. Or, the revelation that one of the last remaining Negro League ballparks in the country can be found in Hamtramck. Attempts are underway to preserve the crumbling structure and turn it into a  community park and a monument to the Negro Leagues.

The author doesn't turn a blind eye to Detroit's history of racism and segregation. I'd heard about the 8-mile Wall that a developer built to separate a black neighborhood from a new, lily-white subdivision. But I didn't know that the Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners Loan Corp. refused to approve loans to the white-only project unless the developer built the wall. It still stands as a memorial to institutional racism and today is decorated with murals.

Also found in the book is Baker's Keyboard Lounge, the world's oldest continuously operated jazz club. Detroit's famous Elmwood Cemetery where the famous and near famous lie in perpetual rest in a cemetery that received accreditation as an arboretum and offers regular tours of its plantings. Also found in the book is a Mortuary Science Museum, the state's largest used and rare bookstore, a parking garage built in a former theater, Detroit's oldest house, Detroit's Jewish bathhouse dating to the 1930s, and St. Anne Catholic Church, the second oldest Catholic parish in the USA. 

There are 90 sites in this fascinating book. Each write-up is succinct, informative, and quickly gets to the essence of why the site has been included in the book. Open the book to any page and it's like opening a bag of Better Made Potato Chips (also in the book), you just can't stop diving back into the book or bag.

Secret Detroit: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure by Karen Dybis. Reedy Press, 2018, $20.95


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