848 People Died 20 Feet From a Chicago Wharf in 1915
Few people know of the Eastland.
I have my suspicions for its tragic obscurity; rather than involving wealthy, upper-class citizens, the Eastland Disaster claimed the lives of working-class immigrant families. I’ll cling to optimism and just blame happenstance and the eruption of World War I.
July 24, 1915
Chicago River, Between Clark and LaSalle Streets
Thousands of employees of Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works (an early manufacturing supplier for AT&T) gathered in Chicago to board five vessels bound for a picnic in Michigan City. In the days before sick, personal or vacation days, this was a big deal.
The lives of immigrant workers in turn-of-the-century Chicago wasn’t easy, as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle graphically portrayed. The ethnicities gathering at the Chicago River were as varied as the city is today, although most of those boarding the SS Eastland were Czech. This was a big deal to them, like a trip to Disney World.
The imposing SS Eastland sat in the shallow, muddy Chicago River, collecting passengers on the chilly July morning. The vessel impressed onlookers, but her history was a bit sordid. Since its inception, the Eastland had been bought and sold five times before becoming a recreational passenger ship on the Great Lakes.
Years earlier, a mutiny had occured aboard the vessel, but the ship’s chief problem was in its poor design: it was top-heavy and prone to listing, or heeling to either port or starboard. In rough waters, that flaw could exaggerate a roll, causing the ship to heel dramatically and possibly capsize. But this flaw had been forgotten or dismissed in the years of paperwork exchanged between owners. Three years earlier, a far more famous shipwreck, the Titanic, had prompted several new laws for passenger vessels, one of which required a ship to carry enough lifeboats to provide for the entire ship’s complement. For a thirteen-year-old ship, that meant sticking lifeboats wherever and however possible, most of which were stashed on deck. That worsened the Eastland’s already top-heavy design.
That July morning the weather was clear and calm, but the Eastland slowly began a roll from port to starboard that grew alarmingly worse. Although the exact cause is debated, experts believe the shifting weight of the passengers, who boarded on the starboard side then immediately went to the vessel’s port side to look out on the river and city, likely caused the fatal plunge.
With over 2500 people aboard, many of them nestled below decks, the ship rolled to the starboard and then one last time to port…but never righted itself. Only feet from the wharf, the Eastland and its 2500 passengers and crew, fell on its side and sank twenty feet into the Chicago River.
A Chicago writer present as the ship capsized gave his dumbfounded account to several city papers. “As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing.”
The beam (width) of the Eastland stood at nearly forty feet, so the ship seemed to float in the water like a beached whale, but that didn’t help the victims much. Many had tumbled off the deck into the river wearing the heavy, layered clothes typical of the era, and littered the water in a panicked, struggling mass. But hundreds were trapped below decks to drown or be killed by the sudden shifting of the ship’s fixtures and cargo.
A local barber who witnessed the disaster told an Illinois newspaper “People in the river battled with one another for their lives. The few who could swim had little more chance of escaping with their lives than those less fortunate so thickly were the waters strewn with human beings.”
Immediately the wharf came alive with people trying to help and a nearby ship, the Kenosha, even steamed alongside the capsized ship to assist in the rescue efforts. Those hard working men and women prevented the death toll from skyrocketing even higher.
Despite those immediate and dramatic efforts, 848 of those on the SS Eastland (four crew and 844 passengers) died in the Chicago River, only a few feet from safety. Many were women and children, traveling to spend the day at a relaxing picnic in Michigan City.
Counting and identifying the dead was a logistical nightmare in those low-tech days, and bodies were brought to a nearby armory serving as a temporary morgue for the victims (that armory would later become Harpo Studios, of Oprah fame). Newspaper speculated the total lost in the disaster, and it would take weeks before the final number, 848, was confirmed, most of which were working-class immigrants and their families.
It took nearly a month and hundreds of engineers and workers to right the Eastland, and although beaten and bruised, the ship was still salvageable. It would be purchased by the Naval Reserve and continue life for another thirty years as the USS Wilmette, serving the armed forces well, if not heroically. The greatest achievements of the vessel in those years were sinking a captured World War I U-boat, transporting President Franklin Roosevelt and serving as a training ship for famous Hoosier reporter Ernie Pyle.
Although the story of the Eastland burned through the nation’s telegraph wires at the time, the story didn’t have legs. World War I erupted overseas, and that epic disaster eclipsed this one. Even today, Chicagoans may be familiar with the story to the point of boredom, but outside the city limits, the story isn’t as famous, or rather, infamous. Even today, there’s only a single marker memorializing the site of the disaster.
Blame for the disaster never fully settled on any entity. Although six men were charged with negligence and manslaughter, the case was quickly dismissed. As far as its then-current owners and crew knew, it had served in every capacity without issue for thirteen years. They had little reason to anticipate such a disaster. Instead, the Eastland Disaster became a tale of bad design and even worse luck.
Trotting out morbid tales isn’t much of an art, but doing it with respect to the victims is. I hope I’ve done a passable job. Many writers have told the story better (with far fewer words) but stories like the Eastland’s have to be told and retold, even with a writer’s failings. It’s our responsibility as human beings.
I strongly believe those of us spared such disasters have the sacred burden of bearing witness. As ill as it makes us, and as unsettling as it may be to our worldview and peace of mind, we owe it to victims to not look away.
For the 848 lives lost on the SS Eastland in 1915, that’s all we can do.