A historical summary of the S.S. Eastland and the Eastland Disaster which occurred on July 24, 1915.
HISTORY OF THE SHIP
Built by the Jenks Ship Building Co., and initially purchased by the Indiana Transportation Co., the ship would be owned by five companies and the U.S. Government over the course of its service.
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 to 2400, and finally to 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.
After the events of July 24, 1915, the Eastland was salvaged and sold at auction on December 20, 1915 to Captain Edward A. Evers. Captain Evers then sold the ship on November 21, 1917 to the United States Navy. Assigned to the Illinois Naval Reserve the ship was refitted as a gunboat. She was renamed the U.S.S. Wilmette in 1920 and used as a naval training vessel on the Great Lakes. 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. For the remainder of her 25-year career, the gunboat served as a training ship for naval reservists in the 9th, 10th, and 11th Naval Districts. She made voyages along the shores of the Great Lakes carrying trainees assigned to her from the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois. Wilmette remained in commission, carrying out her reserve training mission until she was placed “out of commission, in service,” on February 15, 1940.
Given hull designation IX-29 on February 17, 1941, she resumed training duty at Chicago on March 30, 1942, preparing armed guard crews for duty manning the guns on armed merchantmen. That assignment continued until the end of World War II in Europe obviated measures to protect transatlantic merchant shipping from German U-boats.
During August 1943 the Wilmette was given the honor of transporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy, James F. Byrnes and Harry Hopkins on a 10-day cruise to McGregor and Whitefish Bay to plan war strategies.
On April 9, 1945, she was returned to full commission for a brief interval. Wilmette was decommissioned on November 28, 1945, and her name was struck from the Navy list on December 19, 1945. In 1946, the Wilmette was offered up for sale. Finding no takers, on October 31, 1946, she was sold to the Hyman Michaels Company for scrapping which was completed in 1947.
U.S.S. Wilmette undergoing refitting at Navy Pier, Chicago (1903)
On July 24, 1915 an employee group called the Hawthorne Club of Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works factory, located in Cicero, IL, chartered the S.S. Eastland for a sponsored exursion and picnic. The S.S. Eastland was one of five ships chartered for the excursion that morning. The others were the Theodore Roosevelt, the Petosky, the Maywood, and the Racine. The picnic was to be held in Michigan City, Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan. The Eastland was the largest of the five ships and was the first scheduled to disembark at 7:30 a.m.. Moored on the south bank of the Chicago River between LaSalle and Clark Streets, the Eastland’s ticket takers boarded some 2,500 passengers before raising the gangplank and directing people to the other steamers.
Western Electric Plant Cicero, IL – Postcard (circa 1950)
Western Electric Plant Cicero, IL – Aerial View (circa 1917)
It was a calm Saturday morning with som drizzling rain as the passengers boarded the ship. Some 7,000 tickets were sold to employees for their family and friends for the picnic. The band was playing on a lower deck and passengers danced as the boat swayed back and forth. As the steamer was getting ready to disembark, reports from the time indicate that most of the passengers may have all gathered on the starboard side of the ship to pose for a photograph, thus creating an imbalance of weight on the ship. To compensate Engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ships ballast tanks in an attempt to stabalize the ship, and the Eastland began listing to port and then to starboard but seemed to right herself. Passengers were not concerned until she began listing to port again and things started to fall. Within two minutes the Eastland was resting on her port side on the floor of the Chicago River.
When the ship began to list to port for a second time, pandemonium broke out and people started screaming and jumping into the river, others tightly holding on to their children, and some were climbing over the deck railing to the side of the ship which had risen out of the water. At the time claims were made that the crew of the ship jumped onto the dock when they realized what was happening. The Eastland capsized right next to the dock in 20 feet of water, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. A few managed to slip out of 18″ port-holes resting above the waterline. Bystanders were tossing items into the river hoping these would keep someone afloat. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to rescue 40 people. Police divers pulled up body after body, causing one diver to break down in a rage. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent bodies from washing out into the lake.
S.S. Eastland capsized on the south bank of the Chicago River between LaSalle and Clark Streets (July 1915)
In the end 844 people perished including 22 entire families. Temporary morgues were setup and the task of identifying loved ones was overwhelming. Most of the corpses were taken to the Second Regiment Armory, which later became home to Harpo Studios and is now home to McDonald’s Corporate Headquarters. Some of the studio’s employees have claimed that the studio was haunted by ghosts of the Eastland disaster. Spouses were lost, children became orphans, and parents cried over the loss of their children. Some families rejoiced in the safe return of loved ones while mourning the loss of other family members. Many families lost their only source of income.
The capsizing of the S.S. Eastland marked the greatest maritime loss of life in Chicago or the Great Lakes. As a result of the incident several lawsuits were filed. Court decisions blamed improperly weighted ballast tanks for the disaster. But transportation historian George W. Hilton argued in a 1995 book that the international reaction to the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier ultimately doomed the Eastland, which had almost capsized in 1904 with 2,370 people aboard. Due to the Titanic disaster a bill that required ships to have enough lifeboats for 75 percent of their passengers was passed into law. As required by the new law the owners of the Eastland, on July 2, 1915, added three lifeboats and six rafts, weighing 14 to 15 tons, to its top deck which further exaserbated the ships listing problems. Litigation lasted 20 years and in the end all lawsuits against the owners of the Eastland were thrown out by a court of appeals and the exact cause of the listing and subsequent disaster has never been determined.
Police and Recovery crew on the hull of S.S. Eastland recovering the remaining bodies from the ship and river. (July 1915)
Chicago jumped into action to help from rescue efforts to raising funds. Within two weeks $350,000 was raised for the relief of those families in need. Businesses helped in many ways, for instance Marshall Fields sent blankets to cover the victims and warm those pulled from the river. Storefronts and hotels opened their doors as shelters and medical stations. Phone lines were installed and lists of victims and survivors were complied and forwarded to the switch board operators at the plant in Cicero.
Western Electric provided compensation to the families by establishing two funds. One was to help with the funeral expenses including cemetery plots and even a new suit if necessary. The other provided funds for food and everyday expenditures. The company gave needed medical care and inoculated over 200 people against typhoid, and adopted a policy of favoring victims’ relatives in application for employment.
Czech, Polish, German, Italian, and Swedish immigrants were among the nationalities employed at the Western Electric plant in Cicero. Individual ethnic groups responded and offered assistance. Organizations such as the Masons and Order of the Eastern Star aided with the financial burden of burying the victims as well as supporting and comforting families. An Eastern Star member attended numerous funerals and wrote, “It rained all week at all burials. It seemed as if the heaven was weeping too.”
MEMORIALS & RECOGNITION
A marker dedicated to the accident was dedicated on June 4, 1989. It was mounted at the top of a post, along the rivers edge, at the site of the disaster and after many years of exposure to the elements the plaque seperated from its mounting and came to rest on the ground below. Shortly thereafter the plaque was reported stolen on April 26, 2000. A replacement plaque was installed and rededicated on July 24, 2003. There are plans for a permanent outdoor exhibit with the proposed name “At The River’s Edge”. This exhibit would be at the exact location of the disaster. The exhibit will include 6 steel frames for a total of 12 panels. The 12 panels will combine text with high-resolution images to tell the story of the disaster.
Original & Replacement Memorial Plaques (1989 / 2003)
As a result of the efforts in the recovery of bodies from the disaster Coroner Hoffman issued presentation badges to those invovled in the recovery efforts. The badges were designed in the shape of a six point ball tipped star. The badge was manufactured by the C.H. Hanson Manufacturing company, a major badge maker of the time. The obverse of the badge read “For Valued Services Rendered to the Coroner, Eastland Disaster 1915” and had an ovular shaped relief in the center of the S.S. Eastland capsized. The reverse of the badge was inscribed with the recipients name and the amount of bodies recovered. The badges were issued to Police & Fire Department members, and later to other City employees.
Eastland Disaster Coroner’s Badge – Obverse & Reverse Views (1916) Presented to Bert H. Hazleton for the recovery of 78 Bodies
Produced by: Dale Caruso, 2008
Produced by: PBS, 2001
- Center for History. “Chicago’s Worst Tragedy Occurred in the Chicago River.” Retrieved from Wheaton.lib.il.us. Accessed 31 January 2014.
- Chicago Stories. “The Eastland Disaster.” Retrieved from WTTW.com. Accessed 31 January 2014.
- Disaster. “Hundreds Drown in Eastland Disaster.” Retrieved from History.com. Accessed 31 January 2014.
- Wikipedia. “S.S. Eastland.” Retrieved from Wikipedia.com. Accessed 31 January 2014.
- Young, David. “The Eastland Disaster.” Retrieved from Print. Accessed 31 January 2014.