Drive between Clark and
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.
was side-launched at 2:30 p.m. into the Black River at
1911 the Hawthorne Club in south suburban
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
morning, the Eastland was moored from its starboard side to docks on the south
side of the Chicago River near the
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
have seen a large wash of water suddenly overflow the river walk area of lower
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.
Ghost Research Society (www.ghostresearch.org)
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