The Events of
July 24, 1915
Employees of Western Electric and their families began boarding
the first ship, the S.S. Eastland, around 6:30 AM. By 7:10, the ship had reached its capacity of 2,500 passengers.
When the gangplank closed, most of the passengers settled themselves on the port side of the upper deck so they
could view the river. The unsteady vessel began to bob and weave under the additional weight of the lifeboats and
the lop-sided distribution of passengers. It had developed a list to the port, which the crew attempted to stabilize
by admitting water to the ballast tanks.
The ship had just pushed off from the Clark Street dock when it listed far enough to cause water to pour into the
ship from openings in the starboard side, and furnishings and passengers started crashing and sliding across the
deck. By 7:30 A.M., less than 15 minutes after it had left the dock, the Eastland came to rest on its port side,
in 20 feet of water only 20 feet from the wharf. Passengers were trapped either in the lower deck or beneath the
massive ship. The Kenosha came alongside the hull to allow passengers to leap to safety.
841 passengers and 4 crew died in the disaster.
DIVER SEARCHING FOR BODIES
Chicago Tribune (IL)
919 BODIES RECOVERED
TOTAL EASTLAND VICTIMS MAY REACH 1,200
BOAT OVERTURNING BLAMED ON MISTAKE; OFFICERS ACCUSED
Error or Oversight Explains Listing and Tipping of Eastland at Clark Street Docks as Orchestra Plays.
Rescuers Work All Night Bringing Out bodies of Imprisoned Picnickers Who Were Suffocated or Drowned in Greatest
"Somebody made a big mistake!"
Five words serve to epitomize the official summing up of the Eastland tragedy as a half dozen investigating agencies
close in on the mistaken somebody.
"Somebody made a big mistake"--what will take rank as one of the big mistakes of history--and the placid,
shallow, narrow, utilitarian Chicago river folded to its bosom perhaps as many human beings as ever were caught
in any ocean tragedy of modern times.
At midnight there had been taken from the overturned excursion boat and from the river near the scene of the disaster--the
familiar old Clark street bridge -- 919 dead bodies of children, women, and men who had boarded the vessel at 7:30
a.m. for a Western Electric gala excursion to Michigan City.
Of the 889 bodies recovered, approximately 200 have been identified. The others lie, unclaimed and tagged with
numbers, in the Second Regiment armory, Curtis street and Washington boulevard. The armory was open through the
night for the admission of people looking for their dead and missing friends.
Dead May Reach 1,800.
Estimates of the total number of dead--based on the recovery of the 919 bodies--are still uncertain. Of the passengers
and crew, reported to be a few less than 2,500, 700 have reported as safe. This would mean that 900 bodies are
still in the hull of the vessel or in the river, with a total of 1,800 dead.
However, the authorities do not believe that any such number are dead and not recovered. It is supposed that many
of the passengers got off the ill fated boat without reporting the fact. If there are 300 bodies still to be recovered--and
work is continuing through the night--the total death list would number approximately 1,200. Perhaps it is not
so large--it may be larger.
An Unparalleled Tragedy.
In the dire catastrophe of the Eastland there was no thrilling midocean fight against raging winds and mountain
seas, no hidden iceberg on a lonely course, no crash of midnight collision, no thunder of big guns in a clash of
But, literally in the heart of a great city, with elevated trains and street cars thundering past within a few
hundred feet, on a mild summer morning, with a multitude to look on in mute helplessness, with metropolitan skyscrapers
casting their shadow over it all, something like 1,200 persons went to their death in a prosaic excursion boat
as it capsized at its berth. Small boats were all about; a city fire station within a few dozen steps. And the
boat was lashed to its dock!
Such was the unparalleled, paradoxical tragedy of the Eastland. The victims perished within reaching distance of
shore, within speaking distance of streets crowded with office bound loop workers.
No Warning; No Escape.
The better part of them, with women and children outnumbering the men four to one, died without a chance for life.
Packed mostly between decks aboard the cranky craft, they got no warning from officers and crew until the water
was upon them. Then it was too late.
Last night, under the glare of a row of great flaming lights, they were still taking the bodies from the death
ship, while the police fought back the crowd which had lingered all day about the scene of disaster, striving for
a glimpse of what was going on behind the bluecoat cordon.
Rescuers Work All Night.
The old Eastland, its livery work done, lay wearily on its port side less than fifty feet from where it started.
More than half the boat was submerged. On the dry uppermost portion firemen, federal life savers, policemen, physicians,
and other rescue workers hovered about yawning holes which had been pierced through the steel shell by oxygen flames.
Over all emergency electric lights flared and flickered, casting an unearthly glow on the faces of the dead as
they were brought forth and placed on the stretchers.
Besides the arcs and the 125 electric tungsten lamps, which employees of the Commonwealth Edison company had strung
along the upper side of the Eastland and through its interior, ten searchlights played on the hull from the roof
and tower of the Reid-Murdoch company warehouse on the opposite side of the river, which, earlier in the day, had
been requisitioned as a temporary hospital and morgue. There also was an improvised telephone service on the hull
connecting with the main trunk lines ashore, in addition to which the telephone company had supplied a score of
free phones for the use of survivors, their friends, and relatives.
Divers Continue Work.
Three divers, stripped to the waist, kept "treading water" in the hull. When they kicked a body they
called to men above, who retrieved it with pike poles and grappling irons. This morning the work will be renewed
with three fresh divers from Milwaukee.
There were holes in the starboard side of the Eastland through which the rescuers worked. The holes had been pierced
by oxygen flames over the protest of Harry Pedersen, captain of the boat. Pedersen had got himself into trouble
earlier in the day by ordering the men with the oxygen torches to do nothing that would damage the hull. Subsequently
the captain and his first mate, together with others of the crew, were arrested by order of Herman Schuettler,
first deputy superintendent of police.
Above the whole tragedy one point stands out--a point on which the stories of the survivors, however incoherent,
agree. That is that, although the Eastland was known over the lakes for its lack of stability, neither officers
now crew apprised the passengers of their danger until it was too late for them to save themselves.
Two Big Questions.
According to the testimony now in hand, passengers were sliding down the sloping deck and the port rail was at
the water's edge before there was an official chorus of:
"Get over on the other side, everybody!"
There are two big questions which the various investigating bodies will seek to have answered:
1--Was it because of a defect in its water ballast system that the Eastland capsized?
2--Were more passengers permitted aboard than its official carrying capacity of 2,500?
Already there have been several answers to both questions.
R.H. McCreary, navigation inspector, says he turned away all prospective passengers after his automatic counter
Contradicting McCreary's assertion is the estimate of two officials in charge of the outing that 3,200 persons,
of whom the women outnumbered the men four to one, had been crowded aboard the Eastland.
The Eastland's gauge tender came forward late in the afternoon with the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship company's
version of the capsizing.
A sudden rush of passengers to the port side of the excursion boat to view a passing launch carried the Eastland
over, he said.
But in their stories the survivors say there was no such rush-- that the crowd, great though it was, seemed evenly
distributed over the vessel.
While the Mandolin Plays.
It was at 7:40 o'clock that the Eastland went over, just as its stern line had been cast off from its berth west
of the south end of the Clark street bridge. On the east side of the bridge the steamer Theodore Roosevelt, also
chartered by the picnickers, was taking on a second load of passengers.
On the upper deck of the Eastland a little mandolin and fiddle orchestra was playing ragtime. There was no dancing,
for the crowd overflowed the dance floors.
Some of those aboard the boat had noticed it was unsteady and swaying from side to side without apparent cause.
At last, when it seemed the vessel could hold no more passengers, the gangway was drawn in.
PHOTO CAPTION: SOME OF THE DEAD AND MISSING IN TRAGEDY
MR. and MRS. DAVID MURPHY, MARRIED IN NOVEMBER
EDWARD GARNER, DEAD
MISS S. SCHULTZ, DEAD
MISS ANNA PESCH
MRS. MARTHA HOFFMAN
JOHN R. SALLUASSER
MRS. EMMA SCHROLL
MISS N. KASPER
MRS. JOHN R. SALLUASSER
RAYMOND H. PATNOE
MISS FREDA MARGARET CHRISTIANSEN
PHOTO CREDIT: PHOTO HEINEMANN
"In the name of God, I ask you to go away and let those seeking for relatives
and friends come in and identify their dead."
With these words, Coroner Peter Hoffman addressed the thousands who stood outside the Second Regiment armory last
night shortly before 11 o'clock, and then the doors were thrown open. Twenty at a time, the anxious seekers were
admitted to the great death chamber. In less than a minute the line of those waiting their turn was stretched the
length of an entire block and as the night passed the line grew longer and longer. While those on the outside waited
their turn, tragic scenes in endless number were enacted within the walls of the massive emergency morgue. Mothers,
sisters and daughters walked slowly between the long lines of dead, hoping and yet not hoping. Time and again,
a single scream told of the discovery of some loved one, while often there was only a suppressed choking, heartbreaking
sob as the mother collapsed beside the body of her child.
Strong men, hardened to tragedy, broke down and fled weeping from the building, unable to bear up under this greatest
tragedy of all. Other men, finding a wife, mother, or sister among the dead, collapsed like women and had to be
helped from the hall by others hardly less affected than themselves.
Still others moved about the great morgue as though in a trance. Here and there an hysterical laugh told of some
mind strained beyond the breaking point.
As with other appalling disasters, men, women and children moved about, forgetting now and then who they were and
why they had come. Tragedy was written on every face, tragedy that defies description.
[Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1915]