A historical summary of the S.S. Eastland and the Eastland Disaster which occurred on July 24, 1915.
HISTORY OF THE SHIP
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.