Forgotten Titanic: In 1915, 848 People Died 20 Feet From a Chicago Wharf
I did not want to write this article.
In this site’s seven months of virtual life, Orangebeanindiana has (mostly) shunned articles on death, destruction and disaster. It’s the low road in online publication. If we went for gore and ghost stories, we’d be celebrating six million visitors rather than six hundred thousand (but THANK YOU for those 600,000).
Site or not, I personally didn’t WANT to delve back into the story of the SS Eastland and its 848 victims. After several years of teaching high school and regurgitating the accounts of Jonestown, the Eastland and especially the Holocaust, the tales and images always give me nightmares for weeks. Students were always fascinated, but the content takes a toll on the teller. After long thought, I decided to forgo the Eastland story for our site. But a recent family party changed my mind.
For reasons I can’t remember, a conversation between my uncle and I fell on the shipping disasters of Lake Michigan. After a few minutes, I said, “The Eastland, though. That was worse.”
“The what?” he said. I filled him in, but after doing so, I realized that after over a decade of sharing the Eastland Disaster with hundreds of adults and students, I had never run across a single person who knew of it beforehand. Not one. The Titanic, they knew. The Andrea Doria, too.
But not 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, 2015
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.