I’d like to thank the Eastland Disaster Historical Society for posting information about this very sad event. More passengers were lost on this disaster than on the Titanic (not including its crew), yet it seems not a lot of people know about it.
The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident. (History.com)
Early morning of Saturday, July 24th, 1915, families gathered together at the Chicago River for Western Electric’s fifth annual employee picnic. Docked at the Clark Street Bridge was the S.S. Eastland, known as the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes”, where more than 2500 passengers and crew members were to board for full day of activities; But something horrible went wrong.
The event was set for families to enjoy a full sail day excursion to the lakefront Washington Park in Michigan City, Indiana. The Park offered many attractions from a roller coaster, electric merry-go-round, dancing pavilion, picnic grounds, baseball park, bathing beach with bath houses, bowling alleys, and an amusement park. The picnickers were predominantly young people, many single and of the dating age. Girls were dressed in wide-brimmed hats, long dresses, stockings, corsets, and fancy boots. The men were also young and dressed in their “Sunday best”. There were also numerous families with young children who were excited to go to such a phenomenal event.
At 6:30am, passengers began boarding the Eastland for the 7:30am departure. Boarding was very quick, averaging about 50 passengers per minute, and soon the 2500 passenger capacity was reached. While the passengers were being loaded, musicians were playing rag-time music, and everyone was joyful and happy. It was a little chilly that morning, so some families went directly into the hull of the ship escaping the cold air from the deck. That turned out to be a deadly mistake.
The ship started to list back and forth from port to starboard causing people to actually slide across the deck, which started a panic. As the ship started to list away from the dock, the entire crowd of men, women, and children became slipping and sliding along with chairs and any personal belongings they had. As all the weight slid to the listing side, the boat turned completely over throwing passengers off the edge and trapping those inside. Because the boat capsized so quickly, there wasn’t enough time to hand out life jackets or ready the life boats.
The Eastland capsized and came to rest on the muddy bottom of the Chicago River in just 20 feet of water, its bow was just 19 feet from the wharf. 844 people died that day, some instantly from being crushed to death, and others from suffocation and drowning.
Of the passengers who perished that day, 70% were under the age of 25, and 58 were infants and young children.
There were many merchants and their customers who were on the waterfront that morning who witnessed the tragedy. As they watched in horror, they began jumping into boats and into the water and started rescuing survivors. By 8:00am, almost all of the survivors had been pulled from the river, then came the awful task of finding and removing bodies.
The next few days included professional divers tasked to locate and bring up bodies, and engineers were tasked with cutting holes in the ship to look for survivors and also locate the deceased. The hardest part was for family members who went to the make-shift morgue to identify their missing loved ones.
Just 10 weeks earlier, the Lusitania had been torpedoed and sunk with 785 passengers dying. On April 15th of 1912, 829 passengers had died aboard the Titanic (plus 694 crewmembers) both in the open seas; But 844 passengers from the Eastland disaster died in just 20 feet of river water.
The Eastland always had a listing issue due to a poor design which made it top heavy, but after a lengthy investigation, the blame for this incident was put on Chief Engineer, Joseph Erickson, for mismanaging the ballast tanks. It appears he emptied the ballast tanks prior to the disaster which made the ship even more top heavy. With no water in the ballast tanks and the majority of the 2500 people on the deck, this was definitely the making for a disaster. The ship was eventually salvaged and sold to the Navy where it was restored and designated a gunboat. After it was renamed the USS Wilmette, it was primarily a training vessel on the Great Lakes, and was later scrapped after World War II. (Wikipedia)
Today the Eastland disaster location on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets is considered one of Chicago’s most haunted locations. Some people walking along the wharf at night have reported hearing sounds of water splashing followed by screams and moans. Other people have heard cries for help and some have also seen apparitions of individuals dressed in the 1915 time period, walking along the waterfront.
No doubt there’s still some out there re-living the tragedy of the Eastland disaster, maybe looking for closure, or maybe begging for help. If you happen to visit that location late at night, you could be a witness to a drowning, a drowning which occurred over 105 years ago.
Info for blog and for more detailed information about the Eastland Disaster go to: Eastland Disaster Historical Society
Info for blog from Smithsonian Magazine
Info for blog from History.com
Category: The Z-Files