Eastland Disaster

Eastland Disaster

Wacker Drive between Clark and LaSalle Street Bridges


Chicago has been known for disasters, loss of life and violence in the past. Chicago’s worst disaster to date was the capsizing of the SS Eastland on July 24, 1915.  Estimates range as high as 844 people who drowned just a few feet from the loading ramp or below decks when the heavily-overloaded pleasure boat spilled to one side.

The Eastland was in 1903 for the Michigan Steamship Company and was officially launched on May 6th.  The Eastland was designed as a twin-screw ship with high-rising steel sides and a fender strake, as distinct from a steamboat with overhanging guards and a wooden superstructure.  The ship was designed to carry 2,000 passengers with sleeping accommodations for 500, however, on July 2, 1915; this was upgraded to 2,500 with the addition of three boats and six rafts.  The gangways were built so low that, from the outset, the ship had a small range of lateral stability.  When the aft gangways were 18 inches above the waterline, a list of only some 7.5 to 10 degrees was enough to bring water onto the main deck.

She was side-launched at 2:30 p.m. into the Black River at Port Huron and christened by Frances Elizabeth Stufflebeam.  The Eastland eventually began to make runs between Chicago and Michigan City, Indiana and South Haven, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph in Michigan.

Since 1911 the Hawthorne Club in south suburban Cicero, Illinois had organized an annual picnic for employees of Western Electric in Michigan City, Indiana.  The club arranged for the excursion each year with Walter K. Greenebaum, president and general manager of the Indiana Transportation Company.

Saturday, July 24, 1915 was the day of the annual company picnic.  Seven thousand tickets were distributed to company workers and their families living in the Chicago area.  The tickets were seventy-five cents each and children were to be admitted at no cost.

That morning, the Eastland was moored from its starboard side to docks on the south side of the Chicago River 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, most Western Electric employees wanted to board these ships.  And since these two ships were scheduled as the first to depart, there was little doubt that both would be filled to their capacities.

Built of steel and four decks high, the ship’s nickname was “Speed Queen of the Lakes.”  Its 22-mile-an-hour slice through the water was due to its unusually narrow width of 36 feet.  Sure, there had been rumors of its instability, but there had been the dare offered by one of the ship’s owners; a $5,000 reward for the man who could prove that the Eastland was unsafe.  No one took the bait.

At 6:30 a.m., preparations began for loading.  The river was fairly calm.  There was no wind and the skies were partly cloudy.  The Eastland was scheduled to depart at 7:30 a.m.  At this time, 5,000 people had already arrived and were waiting to board, so when the gangplanks were lowered, people rushed in so that they would not be denied a chance to ride the Eastland.  The majority of those preparing to board the ships were actual employees of Western Electric.  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 a.m., 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 to help steady the ship.  By 6:51 a.m., the ship evened out.

At 6:53 a.m., the ship began to list again, this time to port.  When the list reached 10 degrees, Erickson ordered the starboard ballast tanks to be partially filled.  The list was straightened temporarily, but, as passengers were loading at an approximate rate of 50 per minute, the passenger count had reached capacity by 7:10 a.m.  At this time, the ship began to again list to port.  The port ballast tanks were emptied, but the port list increased to approximately 15 degrees by 7:16 a.m.  Within the next few minutes, the ship straightened again, but the port list resumed at 7:20 a.m., 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.

While this was occurring, the gangplank was closed and most passengers on the ship migrated to the port side where they had a view of the happenings on the river rather than a view of the dock.  By 7:23 a.m., the list had become too severe that the crew directed passengers, many of whom were on the ship’s upper decks, to move to the starboard side.  However, by 7:27 a.m., the list had reached an angle of 25 to 30 degrees.  More water began to flow into the ship from openings in the port side, and chairs, picnic baskets, bottles and all sorts of items began to slide across the decks.  Still there was no general panic. The band on the Theodore Roosevelt, playing “I’m on My Way to Dear Old Dublin Bay,” could be heard on the open decks.

At 7:28 a.m., the list had reached 45 degrees.  At this point, 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 fire boat 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 gang ways 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 a.m.

Some passengers who had pulled themselves to safety were fortunate to find themselves standing on the starboard hull of the Eastland.  Others who were not so lucky were 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, 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 of 85 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 22 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 crew member 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.  And, the ironic part is that all these people died in just 20 feet of water in downtown Chicago, just a few feet away from the safety of the dock and dry land.

Salvaging the ship 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 hull.  The ship was finally refloated on August 14th.

The Eastland was acquired by the Illinois Naval Reserve four years later, after several modifications which enabled the ship to serve safely as a training vessel.  The ship, re-named the USS Wilmette, served for several years until it was decommissioned in 1945.  The ship was then sold for scrap, and by early 1947, the ship was completely disassembled for parts and metal.

A bronze plaque was erected on the site, Sunday, June 4, 1989 and there were thought to be only four survivors alive from the disaster.  However, only Libby Hruby, 84 at the time, was in sufficiently good health to attend the ceremony.

For a number of years now the area where so many lost their lives has been the scene of strange paranormal activity, namely sights and sounds.  Pedestrians strolling past the site, particularly in the evening, often hear a loud commotion in the water as though a number of people are floundering around.  Screams and splashes are the most often encountered type of sound heard by people near the area.  Of course, when they look from the overlook, they see nothing amiss and the water perfectly calm.

Some have seen a large wash of water suddenly overflow the river walk area of lower Wacker Drive where there are a number of riverside cafes.  Such would have been reminiscent of the water that was thrown on the lower docks when the Eastland rolled over.  Those who have availed themselves an afternoon stroll along the river or have stopped for lunch at one of the many cafes have been shocked to see something actually in the water.  On closer inspection, they have complained of seeing strange reflections of faces, not their own, staring back at them from the depths of the Chicago River.  Obviously victims of the unfortunate accident.

It may take quite sometime for the energies to dissipate sufficiently for the paranormal activity to cease altogether.  Until then, the ghosts of the Eastland will be encountered.

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