Michigan City, Indiana was the ideal location for the Hawthorne Works employee picnic. Its showcase feature was the lakefront Washington Park, which offered various attractions including a roller coaster, electric merry-go-round, dancing pavilion, picnic grounds, baseball park, bathing beach with bath houses, band stand/gazebo, bowling alleys, amusement park, and photo studio.
The picnickers were predominantly young, many single and of dating age. The girls dressed in wide-brimmed hats, long dresses, stockings, corsets, and fancy boots – and all on a warm summer’s day. The men, many of whom were also young and single, dressed in their “Sunday best.”
In the early 1900s, employees worked a six-day work week. So for many, a day at Washington Park meant a day off of work to be enjoyed by nothing more than rest and relaxation. Husbands and wives enjoyed the serene wooded sections of the park, engaging in peaceful conversation with their co-workers, friends, and neighbors. It was a simple time, and the plan for the day was just as simple: “The women furnish the beauty; the men bring their appetites.”
Attendance at the picnics began to really take off at the 1913 picnic. After attendance of approximately 3,500 for the first two years, the number in 1913 jumped to over 6,000. With the number of growing attendees, provisions had to be made for additional capacity, which meant additional ships. To help provide capacity for the swelling crowd, an additional excursion ship was chartered for the 1914 picnic – the S.S. Eastland.
The 1915 ticket price to board the ship for an adult was $1, or $.75 if purchased in advance. These ticket prices were not as nominal as seems. Nicholas Suerth, a supervisor at the Hawthorne Works, earned $17 a week working full-time. More tickets were sold in 1915 than ever before – over 7,000 had been purchased for the event. “Summer wouldn’t be summer without the picnic” was the mainstream thought.
At 6:30 a.m. on July 24, 1915, passengers began boarding the Eastland in preparation for the 7:30 a.m. departure. Boarding of the ship ran at a rate of about 50 passengers per minute. Soon, the 2,500 passenger capacity was reached.
Musicians played ragtime while passengers danced. Moments later, and for hundreds of passengers, the music stopped playing – forever.