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The Eastland Disaster: The Worst Sea Disaster in American History

Updated on October 5, 2010

The Eastland on Its Side

The Eastland on its side in the Chicago River
The Eastland on its side in the Chicago River | Source

The Eastland Disaster

Most people know a little bit about history in Chicago. Of course, there is a lot of history in Chicago. It's a city that has been around for quite a large number of years, so that means a lot of things have gone on here. What most people remember are things like The Great Chicago Fire and the World's Fair that was made famous in "The Devil in the White City." Most people probably know about Al Capone because he has been on television enough times to be famous. People may also know John Wayne Gacy was from Chicago.

What a lot of people probably don't know is that the worst boating disaster in the history of the United States occurred right here in Chicago. It took place, in fact, in the Chicago River, right in downtown Chicago and only a few feet from shore. It was a disaster that managed to be eclipsed by an impending world war and the fact that the dead were mostly immigrants. Also, the world in general was still reeling from the Titanic disaster and so many seemed to want to just forget that this had ever happened.

Those who live here in Chicago have never really forgotten, however. On the day of the disaster at least one newspaper declared it "The Day Chicago Cried." The stories that took place during this disaster have been told again and again right here. Amazingly there is not a monument to the victims. Instead there is a small plaque on the riverwalk that runs along the Chicago River that denotes the location of the disaster. The plaque is located between LaSalle and Clark streets on the Chicago River right in downtown Chicago. This was also the location of the disaster.

A troubled history

The S.S. Eastland was commissioned shortly after the turn of the new century and was designed to be a passenger cruiser to ply the Great Lakes as a touring vessel. Throughout the early history of the ship, however, there were repeated reports of the ship being top-heavy. Several crew members reported in those early days that the ship had a tendency to list to one side or another.

In 1912 a disaster happened that, unintentionally, created an additional problem for the S.S. Eastland. The Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, killing nearly 2,000 people in the process. The ship did not have enough lifeboats to carry off all of the passengers so, regardless of how full the lifeboats had been filled, there were going to be a large number of people in the freezing water. After this disaster changes were made that all ships who carry passengers should have enough lifeboats to carry off all passengers. This meant the S.S. Eastland needed more lifeboats. Lacking space anywhere else these boats, and the extra weight that came with them, were added to the top of the boat. Thus a boat that was already top-heavy was made more so due to the changing regulations thanks to the Titanic disaster.

The S.S. Eastland was used for parties and as a chartered cruiser. On the morning of July 24, 1915 the boat was to be used by Western Electric employees for a day-trip to Michigan City Indiana for a company picnic. Over 7,000 tickets to this event had been purchased by employees and their family members. The S.S. Eastland was to be one of five ships the company had chartered to take all of those employees to the spot in Indiana.

A day of celebration begins

That day began very early for the crew of the Eastland. At three in the morning the ship was fired up and headed toward the Chicago River and to the wharf located at Chicago and South Haven. Shortly after six in the morning the ballast tanks within the ship were emptied. By six-thirty nearly five thousand people had already showed up to board the ships. The captain of theEastland, wanting to keep the crow controlled, ordered his ship to be opened up to passengers and nearly two thousand of those five thousand people began to surge onto the boat.

At the passengers stream across the walkway onto the ship the Eastland begins to list almost immediately to the starboard (right) side. It is listing enough that crew members and the captain are slightly concerned. The Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson notes the list and then orders the crew to stabilize the ship. The crew responds immediately by filling the ballast tanks on the port (left) side. The Eastland's ballast tanks are relatively slow and it takes three minutes before the ship begins to right itself. The excursion is supposed to begin its trip to Michigan City by seven-thirty. It is now nearly seven in the morning and the ship manages to right itself for a few moments.

The disaster starts

What happens next has been open to debate for nearly one hundred years. As the thousands of passengers filter in they are first concentrated on the wharf side, which would be the starboard side, and which would be why the ship first lists to that side. As the passengers enter the ship they decide they want to watch other ships passing in the river or perhaps view anything but the wharf so they begin to walk toward the port side of the ship. There are some who say a fast and fancy ship and so they suddenly surged toward the port side. Regardless of why the passengers, who are boarding at the rate of fifty a minute, swarmed and concentrated on the port side of the ship all at once. The ship begins to list dramatically to the port side. Erickson then orders the crew to correct his list and the crew fills the other ballast tanks. Once again the ship rights itself.

Just before seven o'clock the Eastland requests a tugboat to guide the ship out of the river and into Lake Michigan. At seven o'clock the tug boat named Kenosha arrives and takes up a position at the front of the Eastland. No sooner does the tug boat arrive and the Eastland begins to list to the port side again. Even though the Eastland is not supposed to leave the wharf until seven thirty Erickson orders the engines started just after seven. Erickson then attempts, again, to correct the list to the port side. He orders the number 3 port ballast tank to be pumped out. For some reason the number 2 port ballast tank is not emptied.

The Eastland is now listing noticeably to those on shore. The Harbormaster Adam F. Weckler reaches the Clark Street bridge to see what his happening with the boats and their loading. He makes a note of the listing of the Eastland and estimates the list as about seven degrees. Around this time the total capacity of the Eastland, around 2,500 passengers, is reached and the crew stops boarding. The remaining passengers are told to start boarding some of the other ships that have been charted and that are also now boarding.

It is still just about a quarter past seven. The crew are starting to worry about the list to the port side which is become more and more pronounced with each passing minute. As the gangplanks are prepared to be brought on board the radio operator for theEastland, a man named Charles Dibbell, begins to address the crowd of people huddled around the port side. He tells them that they need to start moving toward the starboard side. Whether or not anyone listens or anyone follows his orders is open to debate but witnesses say that no one bothers to move and the crowd remains against the railings on the river-side of the boat.

The list of the ship is becoming more of a concern for those still on the docks. At around seven fifteen an employee of a business with a view of the wharf notices the Eastland listing. He calls over a co-worker to come look at the scene. Witnesses now estimate that the Eastland is listing ten to fifteen degrees to the port side. Erickson becomes alarmed enough to order the number 2 and 3 ballast tanks on the starboard side to be filled. This time it takes nearly seven minutes before water enters either of these tanks. The reason for the delay is never determined.

The ship rights itself

Just before seven twenty the Eastland does manage to right itself. Despite being straightened the crew and captain note that the ship feels unbalanced and unstable. Still the gangplanks are now withdrawn. The ship's captain indicates he wishes to push away from the wharf. The tug boat begins to maneuver. The lines are cast off. The passengers actually make a move back to the starboard side to witness the events of the ship casting off, but the Eastland now begins to list noticeably to the port side again.

At seven twenty the list to port is so pronounced that water begins to wash over the main deck through an opening placed on the deck to allow water on the deck to wash back into the lake known as a scupper. Chief Engineer Erickson orders the engines stopped. Beer bottles begin to crash down and the main deck is suddenly awash with water and broken glass. The remaining passengers who are still facing the port side begin to move way and toward the starboard side. For some reason the ship continues to list to port, however.

The captain, a man named Pedersen, is still attempting to make way for the trip. The ship meanwhile is slowly tilting over into the water. Erickson begins to issue orders that someone should herd the passengers on the forward deck to start moving toward the starboard side. Passengers near the engine room are also asked to move toward the starboard side. Meanwhile the ship is now listing so far toward port that water is reported rushing through port gangways and crew in the engine room report water is entering the room from the port side. A crew member opens an alarm whistle known as a Modoc Whistle to warn anyone within earshot that something is horribly wrong with the Eastland.

Captain Pedersen is still trying to move forward with the excursion. It is now just before seven thirty and Pedersen orders the engine room to stand by for further orders. He orders any remaining lines cast off. Pedersen also calls for the opening of the Clark Street Bridge so the ship can pass beneath. This order is refused by the harbormaster, however, because of the obvious and pronounced list of the ship. Witnesses on shore will later state that, by this point, the ship's list is twenty-five to thirty degrees to port. The Eastland's stern, the side where all lines had already been cast off, begins to move out into the river. The passengers, believing the ship to be moving out into the river to leave makes another surge toward port.

At seven twenty-five the ship makes its last attempt to correct the list. Once again the list is corrected but for only a few moments. The ship begins to list to port again almost immediately. More water comes rushing into the ship through gangways. Erickson orders a pump to be activated to attempt to pump out the water. The ship is moving very quickly now and after this last attempt to correct itself the ship is almost immediately again at a 25 to 30 degree list to port. The crew members in the boiler room are barely able to stand. Sensing that the ship is lost due to the water rushing into the engine room and the severe list the stokers and oilers begin to rush up to the main deck.

Once again the passengers are asked to move to the starboard side. Several passengers attempt to comply but the decks are slick with water and the list is too severe. Those on the decks are unable to negotiate the incline and move. The ship's orchestra starts to play music but the musicians are having a difficult time standing. There is not yet a panic among the passengers but many in and around the area sense that something is horribly wrong.

At seven twenty-eight in that morning the angle of the ship reaches 45 degrees. Everything within the ship that is not nailed down begins to crash to the floor. The dishes in the kitchen fall out of their racks and crash to the floor. The piano on the promenade deck goes sliding across the deck and nearly crushes two women. The refrigerator behind the ship's bar goes over with a huge crash and this is the first real alert to the passengers that the ship is doomed. Now panic ensues. Water is now pouring in uncontrolled in the gangways and portholes. Passengers make a frantic effort to get starboard. The passengers on the main deck rush to the staircases that lead to the 'tween deck.

The boat turns over

Things happen rapidly now. The Eastland is past the point of saving. The captain screams toward the wharf that gangways be brought back to the ship. The ship is tilting too rapidly for anyone to do anything. Crew members and passengers begin to jump off of the ship into the river. The passengers and crew being to jump off on the starboard side of the ship. As this happens water continues to rush in on the port side and the passengers left there add to the weight.

It is now seven-thirty and the Eastland rolls slowly and quietly onto its port side. The ship rests in the muddy Chicago River bottom. The ship comes to rest in just twenty feet of water and is only 19.2 feet from the wharf. The tug boat casts off its lines and heads to the wharf. This allows some passenger still on the ship to use the tug boat as a kind of bridge to the wharf.

The Eastland turns on it side so quickly that no lifeboats are launched and no life-vests are handed out. The river is immediately flooded with passengers. However, the wake of the capsizing ship creates a lot of waves. Most of the passengers are dressed in their "Sunday" finest for the day which, in that day, means heavy suits and dresses. Waves swamp many in the river. Others are sucked out in the current and pulled under. Inside the ship those who moved to the staircases are hopelessly trapped as the water rushes in. The greatest concentration of dead are found in these locations.

Inside the ship men, women and children can be heard screaming. The water is rushing in. The passengers are piled in entrance-ways and exits. As helpless bystanders attempt to climb onto the side of the ship they can hear the passengers inside screaming. Slowly, dreadfully, the screaming begins to stop as those inside are pulled into the water that has filled the ship and drown.

Rescue efforts begin

Firemen begin to arrive. A police diver is called. Workers from nearby construction sites are called and bring torches to start cutting holes in the starboard side of the ship which is still sticking out of the water. They move frantically and try to pull passengers out. The work is slow. While some passengers are pulled out of the holes it becomes evident that this is no longer a rescue mission but a recovery mission.

Other ships are called and begin to pluck passengers floating in the river. Some are rescued but many are hopelessly swept under thanks to the River's strong current. The river is dragged using large grappling hooks. Rescuers from the shore dive into the river and climb onto the side of the ship where they begin the terrible task of pulling bodies out of the hull.

The aftermath

The next few days are one of tragedy and horror. 844 passengers are drowned in the disaster. 22 entire families are wiped out. Rumors abound of the horrors faced by those trying to recover bodies of pulling men, women and many, many children out of the hull. One legend has it that the police diver who was brought into help with the recovery, after spending a day pulling out bodies, breaks down in hysterics and is driven mad. Reportedly he is sedated and hospitalized.

In the months that follow the Captain does not do well for himself by blaming the passengers rather than taking any blame for the disaster himself. Since many of the passengers were immigrants he blames their ignorance and "questionable" character for the disaster rather than the fact he was still trying to cast off while the ship was lost. The blame for this disaster is never truly affixed to one thing but spread around among several areas.

The ship is called top-heavy. The ship's ballast system is declared inadequate. Modifications done to the Eastland to make the ship faster added more weight to the top of the ship and that is blamed for increasing the top-heaviness of the ship.

Regardless of the reasons the day of July 24 was one of the worst disasters in shipping history within the United States. The fact that it took place less than twenty feet from shore is a strange and cruel irony. There were so many bodies that it took days and weeks to identify them. Warehouses now used by Oprah's Harpo Studios were used to store bodies because there was no room at the morgues.

Eventually the Eastland was righted and repaired. The name of the ship was changed to the Wilmette and it was used as a gunboat and pressed back into service. Eventually the ship was decommissioned and turned into scrap.

The story of the Eastland passed into history. However, due to the passengers being immigrants whereas many passengers on the Titanic were rich, the story was not given as much coverage nationally. Of course, events in other parts of the world were also taking up the minds of most as World War One rages in Europe.

Today one of the largest collections of Eastland-related material can be found at the Chicago Historical Society. The Chicago Maritime Society also has a very large collection of artifacts from the Eastland disaster. Both of these organizations can be visited and found online.


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      6 years ago

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      I enjoyed reading your article ,it was great.


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