A dark chapter of Chicago’s history opened on the morning of July 24, 1915. The Eastland, a lake passenger-steamer, cast off from the Chicago River Dock at the Clark Street Bridge with 2,572 passengers on board. The ship immediately listed away from the dock, righted itself momentarily, and slowly rolled over on her side to settle on the river bottom. It would prove to be one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century.
The Eastland was commissioned as a passenger ship that would travel a 77-mile route on Lake Michigan between Chicago, Illinois and South Haven, Michigan. At the time, this was a popular travel route for businessmen dealing in produce as well as for tourists who enjoyed cruising on the lake. The Eastland also made runs in Lake Erie between Sandusky and Toledo, Ohio. The ship changed owners a couple of times and was eventually bought by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company in June of 1914, at which time it returned to its original route between Chicago and cities in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan.
The Eastland’s construction was of steel and was suited for the ocean, much like that of other Great Lakes passenger ships of the period. The ship was four decks high, had a length of 269 feet, and a beam (width) of 36 feet. The Eastland was deliberately built to be narrow to enable it to travel through the water at higher speeds, and was able to reach speeds slightly over 22 miles an hour which earning it the nickname “Speed Queen of the Lakes.”
During its first year on the Great Lakes, the Eastland experienced periodic problems with stability while loading and unloading cargo and passengers. One incident occurred in the summer of 1904 while the Eastland was heading towards Chicago after having left South Haven with approximately 2500 passengers aboard. After the ship had traveled about 1.5 miles into Lake Michigan, it inexplicably began listing (leaning) to the starboard (right) side. The list reached 20 to 25 degrees. After relocating the passengers (whose concentration on the starboard side of the ship had likely contributed to the listing problem) and changing the balance by adding water to the ship’s port (left) ballast tanks, the list soon corrected. This incident created a rumor that the Eastland was unstable and unsafe. A similar incident occurred in 1906, again apparently caused by a concentration of passengers on one side of the ship. It is important to note, though, that, other than a few minor incidents such as these, the ship’s safety record was consistently satisfactory. To prove the ship safe, the Eastland Navigation Company (the ship’s owner from 1909-1914) placed a half-page newspaper advertisement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Leader on August 9, 1910. The ad read “. . .there are thousands of people who know absolutely nothing about boats, the rules and regulations for their running, and inspection and licensing of the same by the U. S. Government. In the hope of influencing this class of people there have been but into circulations stories to the effect that the Steamer Eastland is not safe.” The ad also offered a five thousand dollar reward to anyone who could “bring forth a naval engineer, a marine architect, a shipbuilder, or any one qualified to pass on the merits of a ship who will say that the Steamer Eastland is not a seaworthy ship, or that she would not ride out any storm or weather any condition that can arise on either lake or ocean.” No one ever came forward to claim the reward, and no more problems with the Eastland were reported thereafter.
In the beginning of the 1915 season, the Eastland passed its federal inspection, despite several new alterations that most likely made the ship even more top-heavy, and therefore unstable, than it had previously been. Nevertheless, following another federal inspection on July 4, 1915, the Eastland’s official licensed passenger capacity was raised from 2,183 to 2,500.
Saturday, July 24, 1915 was the day of the annual company picnic for the employees of the Western Electric Company. Seven thousand tickets were distributed to company workers and their families living in the Chicagoland area. The tickets were seventy-five cents each and children were to be admitted at no cost. The day’s cruise was to take passengers to Michigan City, Indiana, a city of beautiful shoreline beaches. It is still a popular resort area today.
That Saturday morning, the Eastland was moored on the south side of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, near the Clark Street bridge. The Theodore Roosevelt, the Petoskey, the Maywood, the Racine, and the Rochester were other ships chartered for the picnic and moored near the Eastland. Specific ship assignments had not been made for the employees. So, because the Eastland and the Theodore Roosevelt were the newest and most elegant, they were the most popular to the picnicking Western Electric employees. Also, these two ships were scheduled as the first to depart, leaving little doubt that both would be filled to their capacities.
Preparations began for loading at 6:30 a.m., and the Eastland was scheduled to depart at 7:30. 5000 people had already arrived and were waiting to board. Because the company picnic was an important social event, a great many of the employees in attendance were young, single adults in their late teens or early 20s. At 6:40, passengers began boarding the ship. At 6:41 a.m., the ship began to list to starboard (towards the dock), but this was not unusual as it was due to a concentration of boarding passengers who had not yet dispersed throughout the ship and were lingering on the starboard side. But, as the list hindered the continuation of loading slightly, the Eastland’s Chief Engineer, Joseph Erickson, ordered the port ballast tanks to be filled enough to help steady the ship. By 6:51, the ship evened out.
At 6:53, the ship began to list again, this time to port. When the list reached 10 degrees, the Chief Engineer ordered the starboard ballast tanks to be partially filled. The list was straightened temporarily, but began to again list to port. Within the next few minutes, the ship straightened again, but the port list resumed at 7:20, at which time water began coming into the ship through openings on the lower port side. Even so, no great panic occurred among the passengers. In fact, some began to make fun of the manner in which the ship was swaying and leaning.
By 7:28, the list had reached 45 degrees, and many of the crew began to realize the seriousness of the situation. Many more passengers were now on the port side of the ship, as they had gone there to view a passing Chicago fireboat that had sounded its whistle while passing. As the furnishings and appliances on the boat fell over with loud crashes and slid across the decks, the passengers began to panic. Many passengers began to crawl out of gangways or other openings on the starboard side as the Eastland gently continued to list to port until it finally settled on its port side at 7:30.
Some fortunate passengers found themselves standing on the starboard hull of the Eastland, or trying to stay afloat in the currents of the river. Others were trapped within or under the Eastland. One eyewitness described the scene:
“I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything that they could reach – at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all.”
Other boats in the area and people nearby began helping with rescue operations immediately. Some onlookers dove into the river or jumped onto the boat to help those who were struggling while others threw wooden planks and crates into the water to help people stay afloat. The crews of other ships were pulling people out of the water, dead and alive. By 8 a.m., all survivors had supposedly been pulled out of the river. Ashes from the fireboxes of nearby tugboats were spread over the starboard hull of the Eastland so rescue workers would not slip on the wet and slick surface as they cut holes in the side of the hull to pull out survivors as well as dead. The screams coming from those inside the ship were disturbing for onlookers. By the time the holes were cut in the hull, many who had been alive at the time the ship rolled had since drowned. A great effort was expended to remove the dead from inside the ship as divers had to go underwater within the hull to retrieve bodies.
A major problem occurring immediately after the disaster was the vast amount of bodies that needed to be laid out in order to be identified. As the Western Electric employees were not assigned to ships, no passenger lists existed and none were written as the ship was boarded. By Saturday afternoon, the Second Regiment Armory on Washington Boulevard had been established as the central morgue. The bodies were set together in rows and around midnight on the 24th, those who believed their relatives might have perished were admitted to begin identifying. Identification took a few days since some entire families were wiped out in the disaster and no one was left in the immediate area to assist in identification.
The total death toll was 844 people. Eight hundred and forty one were passengers, two were from the crew, and one was a crewmember of the Petoskey who died in the rescue effort. Although the Titanic, which sank three years before in 1912, had a higher total death toll of 1,523, the Titanic actually had a lower death toll of passengers than the Eastland, as crew deaths from the Titanic totaled 694.
Salvaging the ship itself was not an easy task. While raising the ship, difficulties were encountered in getting it to float as so much water needed to be pumped out of the hulk. The ship was finally again afloat on August 14.
The Illinois Naval Reserve acquired the Eastland four years later, after several modifications that enabled the ship to serve safely as a training vessel. Re-named the U. S. S. Wilmette, it served for several years until it was decommissioned in 1945. The Wilmette was then sold for scrap, and by early 1947 was completely disassembled for parts and metal.