In July of 1915 on the Chicago River, the SS Eastland, carrying over 2,500 passengers and crew headed for a Western Electric company picnic, suddenly listed to port and rolled over into the muddy river. 844 souls perished, more than on the Titanic or Lusitania; yet the SS Eastland is lost in history to most.
On the morning of Saturday, July 24, employees of Western Electric Co. were heading to an annual picnic on Lake Michigan. About 7,300 people arrived around 6 AM at the docks between LaSalle and Clark Streets to be ferried out to the picnic site by 5 steamers. While small bands played, 2,500 workers and their families boarded the first ship scheduled to leave, the Eastland. These were mainly Polish, Czech and Hungarian immigrants who came to America for a promised better life.
Despite the cool, wet weather, 2,573 passengers and crew crowded aboard the Eastland and the atmosphere was festive! They were poor coworkers from Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero. The Great Lakes Excursion Steamer Eastland was chartered to carry workers and their families on a pleasant day-long outing from Chicago to a park 38 miles across Lake Michigan in Indiana.
The passengers boarding the Eastland had chosen their best summer outfits to wear, for this was to be THE social event of the year for the poor workers. Women wore long, brightly-colored dresses and their best hats. Men wore their Sunday-best suits and pressed white with stiff white collars. It was a rare Saturday break from a 6 day work week assembling telephone equipment. It promised to be a gala day of food, parades and sporting events.
The SS Eastland was the slickest, most glamorous ship at that time sailing on the Great Lakes. What a great part of your company picnic it would be to have the opportunity to sail on this magnificent excursion steamer.
Employees had been advised to get their families to the docks early.
By 7 AM, men, women and children were boarding the Eastland at the rate of almost 50 per minute. A loud mixture of English and Eastern European tongues filed the gangplanks, decks and gangways. At 7:15, the crew prepared for the morning’s journey and hauled in its gangplanks, forcing late passengers to leap aboard from the wharf along the Chicago River.
As a steady drizzle was falling, many of the women with young children in their arms or in tow, took shelter below decks in the drier air. A small band played Ragtime for dancing in the main hall and tea and coffee were being served. On the upper decks, passengers crowded about to find empty wooden seats or space at the railings. It promised to be a splendid outing.
The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and routinely ferried people from Chicago to points along Lake Michigan. Launched in 1902, it was designed to carry only 650 passengers, but a major retrofitting in 1913 allowed a whopping 2,500 people. The sleek, white steamship was called ‘The Greyhound of the Lakes,’ but also had another reputation as being unstable and top-heavy.
The boat relied on poorly designed ballast tanks in the hold to keep it upright. Changes in maritime law after the Titanic sank in 1912 required ships to carry enough lifeboats and lifevests for all. This made the narrow Eastland even more top-heavy. It was in now compliance with the law, but that extra weight created a serious hazard. The boat had listed heavily and nearly capsized on at least two prior sailings.
The SS Eastland had become an accident waiting to happen.
As the Eastland continued to fill with passengers, between 7:10 and 7:15 AM, it began to list slightly to port, away from the wharf. The movement didn’t seem to alarm the picnic-goers, but it caught the attention of the crew, the harbormaster and observers on land. Some of the passengers had gathered on the port side to wave at the crowd gathered on the riverfront to see them off.
The Captain of the Eastland was Harry Peterson, an experienced officer who’d sailed the Eastland many times. The Chief Engineer was responsible for the ballast system. As the ship listed, Engineer Joseph Erikson opened two of the starboard ballast tanks to hold water and stabilize the ship. By the time the last passenger arrived, the boat had righted itself, but only briefly.
At 7:23 AM, it again listed, even further to port this time. Dishes begin sliding off shelves in the pantry and crashing to the floor. Water began pouring through open portholes and gangways into the lower engine room. The crew there, realizing what was about to happen, began scrambling up ladders to the main deck. Thousands of horrified onlookers witnessed the Eastland’s roll. Other Western Electric workers, waiting along the Chicago River shouted out:
“Look out! She’s tipping!“
At 7:28 AM, the Eastland had listed to a precarious 45-degrees. The piano on the promenade deck rolled swiftly into the port wall, crushing two women. A refrigerator icebox also slid to port, pinning a woman and her child beneath it. Panic ensued as passengers screamed and grabbed for any piece of the ship to hold onto. Even more water flooded into port open portholes below deck.
Suddenly, the 275 foot long, fully-loaded ship completed her death roll into the Chicago River, completely submerging her port side, as one reporter described it, “Like a dead elephant shot through the heart.” The Eastland carried 11 lifeboats, 37 rafts and enough vests for all 2,500+ passengers and crew, but they were all useless now.
When the boat started to topple, those passengers on the port side of the upper decks were unexpectedly hurled off, like rocks sliding down a hill. In an instant, the surface of the river was covered with hundreds of struggling, crying, splashing passengers. The ship’s twin smoke stacks tilted with the ship and headed for the water.
By 7:30 AM, the Eastland was lying completely on its port side in 20 feet of murky water, still tied to the dock. Shocked passengers on the right side could climb over the starboard railing and stumble across the exposed hull to safety, barely wet. They were the lucky ones. In the murky river, parents clutched their children and disappeared together beneath the brown water. Infants and babies separated from parents, floated about like corks, then sank as well.
Hundreds of passengers and crew were still trapping inside the floundering ship.
Alarms rang out throughout the city. More than 10,000 people were on the busy riverfront that day, including the other Western Electric workers waiting to board their ships. Horrified onlookers raced to the rescue, men jumping into the river to pull bobbing survivors to the wharf. Others threw ladders, boards, chicken crates, whatever they could grab to provide flotation for those struggling. Eye witnesses described the pitiful screaming as the most horrible aspect of all.
Passengers were hauled out of the river, and others dragged through starboard portholes. Many were cut and bleeding. Nurses and doctors rushed to the scene. The injured were taken to a nearby hospital, which quickly became overwhelmed. The less injured were bandaged and sent home. Because of a shortage of ambulances, American Express trucks were enlisted to help.
Fire Department rescuers attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people trapped alive. Police divers entered the river searching for survivors, but only pulled up body after body. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent floating corpses from washing out to the lake. “And the pitiful smallness of them!” one witnesses recounted:
“Children, and yet more children.“
A passengers fate was determined by where they were on the ship. Those clustered on the port side that rolled into the river, were doomed. Those people inside found themselves in the new bottom of the ship, buried under hundreds of other people and furniture. River water flooded into portholes and doorways to claim them. If you were on the starboard side, you were above water, but the way out was now up.
As the casualties mounted, the nearby Second Regiment Armory on Sangamon Street was converted to a morgue. As news of the disaster spread, families of Western Electric workers rushed to the docks and a line of grieving relatives grew. Just before nightfall, the public was admitted, 20 at a time, to look for family members. Hundreds of bodies lay in long rows waiting for a relative to lift a sheet and identify a loved one. Many of those that perished did not drown, but actually suffocated to death, crushed beneath other people and debris.
By 8 AM, almost all of the survivors had been pulled from the river. The flooded Eastland settled to the bottom of the river, its starboard side still out of the water. Then came the gruesome task of locating and removing bodies. Seven priests arrived to administer Last Rites, but there there was little work for them. 844 had perished. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.
By Noon, divers finally reached bodies that had been trapped underwater in the portside cabins. They seemed to be mainly women and children who’d come in from the rain. Stretcher-bearers traversed the hull as stiff bodies were carried out, sometimes two bodies stacked on a stretcher as they ran out.
By Sunday, the next day, the magnitude of the disaster was most apparent in the Eastern European immigrant communities. House after house was draped in black crepe as weeping families sat inside mourning. By Tuesday, all of the bodies lying in the armory morgue had been claimed.
On Wednesday, July 28th, Chicago was a city of funerals.
So many were scheduled that there were not enough coffins, hearses and gravediggers, working 12 hours a day. By day’s end, almost 700 Eastland victims had been buried. In the days to come, an estimated half a million people arrived to view the Eastland and the disaster scene. Boat owners charged 10 cents to ferry the curious past the floating wreck, lying like a beached whale in the river.
Affixing blame for the accident began quickly. Eastland Captain Harry Pedersen, chief engineer Joseph Erickson and other senior crewmembers were taken into custody on Saturday, in part to protect them from the angry relatives of the victims. Two trials resulted from the Eastland disaster.
Charges were brought against the ship’s officers and owners for criminal negligence and manslaughter. Those charges were changed however by the presiding judge to conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship. The verdict eventually handed down was that All Parties were found to be Not Guilty, as no conspiracy could be proven. Although evidence strongly suggested the crew had been negligent, no officers were prosecuted.
Another poor outcome was the pay-out to the victims’ families. A second civil trial was to determine the extent of the liability of the ship’s owners and crew. This trial was not completed until 20 years later. The court determined that the chief engineer was to blame for not maintaining the ballast system. Erickson died as the proceedings dragged on and that made him a convenient fall guy.
By Maritime Law, pay-outs to the victim’s families was limited to: the value of the Eastland wreck (around $50,000) minus what the ship’s owners had to pay for raising the Eastland from the river (about $35,000) minus the cost of the coal, and even the picnic concession company. All creditors had to be paid first. In the end, victims and families received little or nothing. Any money they received came from Western Electric and the Red Cross.
As to why it happened, experts concluded it was a poorly designed, unstable ship, with a bad ballast system, mismanaged by the crew, that had been rendered top-heavy as a result of the post-Titanic safety measures to add lifeboats, then overloaded with 2,500 passengers. The disaster was a tragedy that was essentially waiting to happen. It wasn’t a matter of if it would capsize, but really a matter of when.
The SS Eastland was pulled up from the river by it owners and repaired. Renamed the USS Willimette in 1920 it was converted into a naval reserve training vessel. Following World War II, in 1947 it was carved up and turned into scrap metal.
Just 10 weeks before the Eastland disaster, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk, with a death toll of 785 passengers. In 1912, 829 passengers had died when the Titanic struck an iceberg. 844 Eastland passengers died on a city river, just feet from the dock in 20 feet of water. Seventy percent of them were under the age of 25. Despite the immense loss of life, little attention has been given to this disaster historically, compared with those other more famous, albeit lesser, maritime disasters, or even the Great Chicago Fire.
Why? you might ask. It’s really quite simple. There wasn’t anyone rich or famous onboard the SS Eastland, no popular stage actors, wealthy industrialists or famous socialites. It was all poor, hardworking, immigrant families that few cared about outside the working class streets of Chicago. A full listing of all the victims names can be found at eastlanddisaster.org/people.