The Eastland Disaster
© Kim Torp


S.S. Eastland upturned in the Chicago River

Saturday, July 24, 1915

 
 

FACTS:

WHERE:
Docked between LaSalle and Clark streets on the south bank of the Chicago River.

WHO:
The Western Electric Company in Hawthorne (Cicero) had chartered the Eastland and three other ships to take their employees across the lake to Michigan City, Indiana, where they would spend the day in the annual company-sponsored "picnic". At the time, Western Electric employed 10,000 people.

WHAT HAPPENED: After pushing off from its berth on the dock, the ship (which had a documented history of instability) began to list to the port side from the uneven distribution of passengers and the extra weight of the lifeboats, allowing water to pour into the ship from openings on the starboard side. The boat quickly capsized and rolled over, trapping many people in the lower deck or beneath the ship.

NUMBER OF DEAD:
844, including all the members of 22 different families.


 



S.S. Eastland

Background on the S.S. Eastland
  The S.S. Eastland on the Chicago River

 

Excursion vessel (2f/2m). L/B/D: 275 × 38.2 × 19.5 (83.8m × 11.6m × 5.9m)
Tons: 1,961 grt; 1,218 net.
Hull: steel.
Comp.: 1,950-3,300 pass; 70 crew.
Mach.: triple expansion, 3,500 hp, 2 screws; 24 mph.
Des.: Sidney G. Jenks. Built: Jenks Ship Building Co., Port Huron, Mich.; 1903.
SOURCE: "Ships of the World, An Historical Encyclopedia"

Built by the Jenks Ship Building Co., and purchased by the Indiana Transportation Co., the S. S. Eastland had been in trouble from the time it had entered regular service in 1903.

The luxury steamship called 'The Greyhound of the Lakes' also had another reputation: one of being unstable and prone to listing from side to side. Changes in maritime law after the Titanic disaster in 1912 required all ships, including the Eastland, to carry more lifeboats, which possibly contributed to it's already well-known listing problems.

In an attempt to correct the steamship's troublesome listing tendencies, its licensed capacity had been reduced several times: from 3,300 passengers down to 2,800... then 2400... and finally 1,125. Steamboat inspectors were persuaded to increase passenger capacity, and 3 weeks before the picnic, Inspector Robert Reid granted the S.S. Eastland an amended certificate, allowing her to carry 2,500 passengers once again. By all accounts, the ship was filled to capacity, plus the added count of the crew.


AFTERWARDS

[Read the October 1915 Popular Mechanics article on Raising the Eastland.]

The Eastland was renamed the U.S.S. Wilmette in 1920 and refitted as a naval training vessel. On June 7, 1921, the Wilmette was given the task of sinking the UC-97, a German U-Boat captured during World War I. The guns of the Wilmette were manned by Gunner's Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in World War I, and Gunner's Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo in the conflict.

In 1946, the Wilmette was offered up for sale. Finding no takers, the government sold her for scrap and she was demolished in 1947. "Science Daily"

 



 



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
DIVER SEARCHING FOR BODIES


NEWSPAPER COVERAGE:

1915-07-25
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 Marine Catastrophe.

"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 rival fleets.

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 registered 2,500.

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

PHILIP ROSER

EDWARD GARNER, DEAD

H. PIERCE

MISS S. SCHULTZ, DEAD

MISS ANNA PESCH

MARTHA QUIVAN

MRS. MARTHA HOFFMAN

ANNA MIETLICKE

IGNACIUS JAKUBOWSKI

KATHERINE SHERIDAN

F.J. CHRISTENSEN

SOPHIE SCHMIDT

JOHN R. SALLUASSER

ANNA STAKER

MILDRED ENGELTHALER

G. FOSTLE

JOE HOFFMAN

MRS. EMMA SCHROLL

LILLIAM LUNGERHAUSEN

ROMAN SLAVINSKI

MISS N. KASPER

FRANK SEGENBRECHT

MRS. JOHN R. SALLUASSER

RAYMOND H. PATNOE

JOHN MANIKOWSKI

MISS FREDA MARGARET CHRISTIANSEN



PHOTO CREDIT: PHOTO HEINEMANN

PHOTO GEHRIG

PHOTO FROSS



"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]


 
     

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