The Eastland Disaster
Eastland: Chicago's Titanic
Almost everyone in American and Europe is familiar with the story of the
Titanic, the great oceangoing vessel designed to withstand any element God
threw at it, wind, waves and ice. But on her maiden voyage, upon striking a
large, and mostly submerged iceberg, her hull was ripped open.
With no rescuers in sight, woefully under equipped with lifeboat and panic fast
setting in among the 3000 passengers and crew, most went into the frigid water
to die of hypothermia, or swimming too close to the ship, were sucked hundreds
of feet under the sea in the wake when the beautiful ship broke into two pieces
and slid below the water.
But while maritime distasters have often been all too common on the high seas,
what about American's great lakes? Some lakes are as deep sand treacherous as the
oceans and subject to ugly winter storms. Stories like the Wreck of the Emmund
Fitzgerald have become folk songs.
This in the story of the Eastland, a steamer ship which capsized in downtown
Chicago July 24, 1915 just three years after thousands died on the Titanic.
For the most part, the story of the Eastland has disappeared from history, but
for a kid growing up in a small suburb deeply effected by the disaster, it was a
story worth retelling every year on the anniversary.
The capsizing of the Eastland steamer on a busy weekday near
in the heart of downtown Chicago, between the Clark and LaSalle Street bridges in the Chicago river. The river's mouth opened into Lake Michigan.
The date had been designated for a company picnic for employees and their families of Westner Electric, a major employer for several small blue collar ethnic European communities. Like many old time employers, Western Electric promoted family activities. Parks, intramural athletic games and English as a second language classes were among the offerings in the
campus where the company manufactured parts for hotly demanded, new fangled
Each year, the company hosted a picnic for workers and their families. 1915's trip included a steamship trip across lake Michigan to Michigan city, Indiana, where the picnic was set for an estimated 7000 people.
There were four vessels chartered to make the journey though more were most likely needed. One stea er was Eastland. She was known at the time as the speed queen of the great lakes. She was also, but not quite so widely, known as unstable, with a particularly high stack and unbalanced weight above her water line. This later played a part in her sinking.
.Among those ships hired by Western Electric, the Eastland was the last of the ship to leave the dock at the Clark Street Bridge into the Chicago River. She never made it to the lake.
There was a light rain falling and the water was churning and visibility was low.
Since many picnic-goers were rushing, they'd crowded, then overcrowded
into the ship. She was designed to hold a capacity crowd of 2,570 but it is believed that at least 3,200 were on board. Because many were spouses and children of workers, accurate records have never been reconstructed.
The Eastland was moored on the south side of the river and after the passengers
were loaded on board, the dock lines release and the ship prepared to
depart. As soon as the ship was untied from the
dock, she began to rock. Passangers rushed to one side to wave goodbye, causing the ship to list dramatically. Crew
members responded by shifting water in the ballast tanks to correct the list, but over
corrected. That crowd, combined with the positioning of an on-deck band, a group dancing and those slipping to the lower side of the deck excelerated the instability. Moments later, the
ship flipped completely, throwing revelers into the river and trapping more
beneath the water. In the years before swimming pools were commonplace in park
district facilities, recreational swimming was unknown. The weight of their
party finery also worked against them, binding limbs and dragging them down.
Onlookers and crews from other boats threw life preserves, boxes, ropes and
anything else they believed would float.
Meanwhile below decks, passengers were flung to one side of the ship, colliding
with furniture, then each other, before being engulfed by cold river water, which was rushing in to fill interior cabins. Most never made it out alive. At least one quarter of the
passengers, over 800 people drowned or were crushed in the accident.
Ironically, the Titanic disaster of 1912, had created a mandate on the required
number of lifeboats on a craft. The extra lifeboats enhanced the ship's
After flipping upside down, the ship comes to rest in the mud, a mere 20 feet from the dock. The whole thing occurred so no lifeboats are launched. Those few which put on life jackets were trapped below decks.
Meanwhile rescuers rushed to cut weld holes in the ship's metal hull. A few passengers
were saved, but the rescue effort quickly became a body recovery effort.
Surrounding stores sent wagons as makeshift ambulances and grappling hooks and nets were used to pulled bodies from the river before they could float out into the lake.
A nearby armory was commandeered as a morgue for the mounting numbers of victims. By late that afternoon, nearly 200 bodies had been taken to the 2nd Regiment Armory. By the time all was done, 835, including 22 entire families, died.
Funeral homes from Chicago, Cicero and Berwyn sent carriages. Nearly a block in the two suburbs remained untouched by death. Western Electric shut down for days of public mourning. And while many causes were considered, no official cause of the accident what ever identified.
Years later the armory was sold and converted to Harpo Studios, the home of Chcago based Oprah Winfrey. Studio employees claimed for years that the armory basement was haunted by children whose bodies had been brought there after drowning.
The Eastland disaster occurred between the Clark and LaSalle Street bridges,
along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. Almost 80 years later, the city placed a plaque at a point on the bridge over the river. Two years later it was stolen, then ultimatedly replaced and remains to this day, though few of the rushing commuter crowds take the time to read it.
The Eastland was removed from the river days later, refitted under a different name, returned to service, then ultimately sold for scrape.
And those hundreds of deaths slipped into history in the same way they slipped between the waters of the Chicago River.