Hundreds drown in Eastland disaster

Hundreds drown in Eastland disaster

On July 24, 1915, the steamer Eastland overturns in the Chicago River, drowning between 800 and 850 of its passengers who were heading to a picnic. The disaster was caused by serious problems with the boat’s design, which were known but never remedied.

The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.

On July 24, employees of Western Electric Company were heading to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at 6 a.m. at the dock between LaSalle and Clark streets to be carried out to the site by five steamers. While bands played, much of the crowd—perhaps even more than the 2,500 people allowed—boarded the Eastland. Some reports indicate that the crowd may also have all gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photographer, thus creating an imbalance on the boat. In any case, engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ballast tanks, which holds water within the boat and stabilizes the ship, and the Eastland began tipping precariously.

Some claim that the crew of the boat jumped back to the dock when they realized what was happening. What is known for sure is that the Eastland capsized right next to the dock, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people alive. More than 800 others perished. 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. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.

The Eastland was pulled up from the river, renamed the Willimette and converted into a naval vessel. It was turned into scrap following World War II. All lawsuits against the owners of the Eastland were thrown out by a court of appeals and the exact cause of the tipping and subsequent disaster has never been determined.

Hundreds drown in Eastland disaster - HISTORY

Wikimedia Commons The steamer SS Eastland being righted after capsizing in the Chicago River.

Chicago’s SS Eastland disaster of 1915 killed 844 people and likely wouldn’t have happened if not for the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier, yet it’s largely been forgotten today. Perhaps it’s because the SS Eastland capsized in just 20 feet of water while the ship was still docked on the Chicago River. Or was it that, unlike the Titanic, the SS Eastland carried thousands of working poor instead of society’s rich and famous?

Originally constructed for transporting fruit, the SS Eastland was, on the morning of July 24, bound for an all-day picnic at a park 40 miles across Lake Michigan.

The Western Electric Company had chartered the boat to ferry its workers to the company-sponsored event. For many of these working class people, the picnic was their rare chance for a little holiday. The passengers, many of them Czech immigrants, began boarding the boat at 6:30 a.m.

By 7:15, the ship had reached its capacity of 2,572 passengers. Many of them flocked to the upper decks, waving to their friends and family on the riverfront. Then the already top-heavy ship (thanks to poor ballast construction, for one) began to lurch under them, ominously tipping away from the wharf.

The ship then righted itself, but only briefly. By 7:23, the ship was at a 45-degree angle. Water began pouring into the engine room. The crew fled to the upper decks. Passengers that had gone to the lower decks to hear the band play were being crushed by heavy furniture now sliding to the side.

Library of Congress A victim being transported by stretcher.

In under two minutes, the SS Eastland was completely on her side, water everywhere. Trapped passengers on the lower decks tried desperately to escape the confines of their cabins and the murky waters that surrounded them. The women, wearing the intricate and heavy party clothes popular at the time, struggled to simply stay afloat while searching for an underwater exit. Most were unsuccessful.

“When the boat toppled on its side those on the upper deck were hurled off like so many ants being brushed from a table,” wrote Harlan Babcock from the Chicago Herald. “In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks.”

Stunned people at the riverfront watched in horror as the SS Eastland disaster unfolded before them. Some jumped into the river and attempted to save lives. Others threw crates or boards in for the drowning people to grab ahold of. “God, the screaming was terrible, it’s ringing in my ears yet,” a warehouse worker old a reporter.

Though the SS Eastland had some design flaws and had experienced close calls in the past, the 1915 disaster was largely caused by the Seamen’s Act. This new federal rule, enacted after the Titanic disaster, mandated that every passenger vessel must be retrofitted with a complete set of lifeboats. For the SS Eastland, this meant the weight of five additional lifeboats, 37 life rafts at 1,100 pounds each, and enough life jackets for 2,570 people.

All this extra weight was mainly carried on the upper deck. However, no extra safety tests were conducted after this addition. Furthermore, the absence of water in the ballast tanks also meant less stability for the ship. It seems as though the SS Eastland was probably doomed from the very start.

In the end, the final death toll of the SS Eastland disaster was 844, roughly one-third of the total people on board the ship. A large number of the victims, about 70 percent, were under the age of 25.

After the bodies started coming in, makeshift morgues like the nearby Second Regiment Armory filled with corpses for families to identify. A shocked Chicago rallied together to provide food and services for the survivors and families.

UpNorthMemories/Flickr Rescue efforts continued for weeks.

Families and others tried to place blame everywhere: the ship’s manufacturer, the captain, the engineer. But no evidence brought forth was able to overturn the growing theory that this was an unfortunate accident void of malicious intent. Nevertheless, the civil suits for more than 800 wrongful deaths continued for decades. However, most families saw little or no returns on their claims.

Who was responsible for all these wrongful death? There were many variables, and a few poor decisions made by several people. But in the end, the SS Eastland disaster, one of the modern history’s deadliest peacetime shipwrecks, could be blamed on the extra weight it carried in order to be in compliance with a law. A law whose sole purpose was to save lives.

The Maritime Safety Law That Killed Hundreds Of People

In the wake of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the US passed the Seamen’s Act which required ships to be fitted with adequate lifeboats. The passenger ship SS Eastland was retrofitted to accommodate the lifeboats, but this added more weight to the already top-heavy vessel. The inevitable disaster that followed ironically killed more passengers on Eastland than on the Titanic, in a catastrophe not out on the open sea, but on an urban river, a mere stone’s throw from the dock.

The Whole Bushel

Launched in 1903, the steamer Eastland plied its route between Chicago and picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. It had an initial capacity of 650 people, but a design overhaul in 1913 allowed it to take on 2,500 passengers. It was then that a naval architect issued a note of warning that Eastland had structural problems that put it in danger of listing and recommended remedial measures to prevent an accident. Eastland lacked a keel and had only poorly designed ballast tanks in its hold to keep it from overturning. The modifications, which also increased the boat’s speed, made it even less balanced. Eastland behaved like a bicycle, unstable when in the dock but steady when underway.

Two close calls in 1904 and 1906 earned Eastland a reputation as a “hoodoo boat.” Now, only one factor was needed to trigger a horrific disaster—additional weight. In a tragic irony, a maritime safety law would provide the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In the aftermath of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, a “lifeboats for all” campaign was launched by international maritime officials. In March 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the LaFollette Seaman’s Act requiring ships to provide lifeboats to 75 percent of their passengers. Lawmakers never considered warnings that Great Lakes vessels were not built to hold the extra weight.

Eastland complied with the law and was equipped with a full complement of 11 lifeboats (it was designed to carry only six) and 37 life rafts of 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) each, and enough life jackets to ensure the safety of all passengers and crew. The stage was set.

On the fateful day of July 24, 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company and their families were headed out on the lake for an annual picnic. In a festive mood, 2,573 passengers and crew jammed the Eastland at its dock on the Chicago River. Bands played as friends and acquaintances greeted each other. No one seemed alarmed when the ship began to list to port. Some reports recalled that a crowd gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photograph. At 7:28 AM, Eastland listed 45 degrees. An engineer desperately attempted to stabilize the vessel by opening one of the ballast tanks. Too late. Eastland rolled over as it was moored just 6 meters (20 ft) from the wharf, in water only 6 meters deep, trapping hundreds of men, women, and children underneath the bowels of the ship. So sudden was the movement there was no time to launch the lifesaving equipment.

Some lucky passengers simply walked across the hull of the overturned vessel to reach dry land, not even getting their feet wet. But for many more, the day became a nightmare of screams and struggle against a drowning death. Onlookers on the riverfront jumped into the water to help or threw whatever they could for flotation into the mass of drowning humanity.

Rescuers were able to pull 40 people out alive. But for 844 others, nothing could be done but recover the bodies and take them to the Second Regiment Armory for identification. Twenty-two entire families had perished. Most of the dead were under the age of 25. Though more passengers died on the Eastland than on the Titanic (excluding crew), it remains an obscure event in the public’s mind. “There wasn’t anyone rich or famous onboard,” explains Ted Wacholz, president of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society. “It was all hardworking, salt-of-the-earth immigrant families.”

And things very, very quickly turned ugly

It's not clear just how many people were on board the Eastland when they pulled up the gangplank. According to navigation inspector R.H. McCreary (via Chicagology), his automatic counter hit 2,500 and he started turning people away. Other officials disagree, and say the number was closer to 3,200. Regardless of how many were on board, it was too many. The Smithsonian — who puts the number at 2,573 passengers and crew — says the gangplank lifted at 7:18, and preparations for setting sail were underway.

Between 7:10 and 7:15, the Eastland started to list. The ship righted itself for just a few minutes, and then — at 7:23 — it listed to port again. Those on board hardly noticed. until five minutes later, when it listed to a 45-degree angle. Water started pouring into the open portholes that were now suddenly at the water line, and just two minutes later, the ship rolled: one reporter described it: "like a dead jungle monster shot through the heart."

At 7:30, the Eastland had stopped moving: it was completely on its side. Some passengers — the ones who were still on the top deck — climbed over the railing and walked along the hull, jumping to the safety of dry land. Others were thrown into the water: "[. ] the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks." And more were trapped below.


The ship was commissioned during 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and built by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan. [3] The ship was named in May 1903, immediately before her inaugural voyage.

Early problems Edit

On 27 July of her 1903 inaugural season, the ship struck the laid up tugboat George W. Gardner and sank her at her dock at the Lake Street Bridge, Chicago, Illinois, but received only minor damage. [4] [5]

Mutiny on the Eastland Edit

On 14 August 1903, while on a cruise from Chicago to South Haven, Michigan, six of the ship's firemen refused to stoke the fire for the ship's boiler. They claimed that they had not received their potatoes for a meal. [4] When they refused to return to the fire hole, Captain John Pereue ordered the six men arrested at gunpoint. Firemen George Lippen and Benjamin Myers, who were not a part of the group of six, stoked the fires until the ship reached harbor. Upon the ship's arrival in South Haven, the six men – Glenn Watson, Mike Davern, Frank La Plarte, Edward Fleming, Mike Smith, and William Madden – were taken to the town jail and charged with mutiny. Shortly thereafter, Captain Pereue was replaced. [4]

Speed modifications Edit

Because the ship did not meet a targeted speed of 22 miles per hour during her inaugural season, and had a draft too deep for the Black River in South Haven, Michigan, where she was being loaded, the ship returned in September 1903 to Port Huron for modifications, including the addition of an air conditioning system and machinery adjustments to reduce draft. [4] [6] Even though the modifications increased the ship's speed, they added additional weight and reduced her draft, thereby reducing the metacentric height and inherent stability as originally designed. [6]

Listing incidents Edit

Upon her return to South Haven, in May 1904, the ship handily won a race against the City of South Haven to Chicago. [6] In the meantime, the Eastland was experiencing periodic problems with her stability while loading and unloading cargo and passengers, and nearly capsized on 17 July 1904, after leaving South Haven with approximately 3,000 passengers. [4] [6] Subsequently, her capacity was lowered to 2,800 passengers, cabins were removed, lifeboats added and the hull repaired. Then, on 5 August 1906, another incident of listing occurred which resulted in the filing of complaints against the Chicago-South Haven Line which had purchased the ship earlier that year. [6]

Before the 1907 season, the ship was sold to the Lake Shore Navigation Company, and moved to Lake Erie. [4] In 1909, the ship was sold again to the Eastland Navigation Company, and continued running excursions between Cleveland and Cedar Point. [6] After the 1909 season, the remaining 39 cabins were removed, and prior to the 1912 season, the top smoke stack sections were removed to shorten her stack height. [6] On 1 July 1912, another incident occurred when the Eastland had a severe listing of approximately 25 degrees while loading passengers in Cleveland. [4] [6]

In June 1914, the Eastland was sold to the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company, and returned to Lake Michigan for St. Joseph, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois service. [4]

The Eastland disaster Edit

On 24 July 1915, Eastland and four other Great Lakes passenger steamers – Theodore Roosevelt, Petoskey, Racine and Rochester – were chartered to take employees from Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. [7] [8] This was a major event in the lives of the workers, many of whom could not take holidays. Many of the passengers on Eastland were Czech immigrants from Cicero of the Czech passengers, 220 perished.

During 1915, the new federal Seamen's Act had been passed because of the RMS Titanic disaster three years earlier. The law required retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on Eastland, as on many other passenger vessels. [9] This additional weight may have made Eastland more dangerous by making her even more top-heavy. Some argued that other Great Lakes ships would suffer from the same problem. [9] Nonetheless, it was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. Eastland had the option of maintaining a reduced capacity or adding lifeboats to increase capacity. Its leadership elected to add lifeboats to qualify for a license to increase its capacity to 2,570 passengers. [10] Eastland was already so top-heavy that she had special restrictions concerning the number of passengers that could be carried. Prior to that, during June 1914, Eastland had again changed ownership, this time bought by the St. Joseph and Chicago Steamship Company, with Captain Harry Pedersen appointed the ship's master. In 1914, the St. Joseph and Chicago Steamship Company removed the old hardwood flooring of the forward dining room on the cabin level and replaced it with two inches of concrete. They also added a layer of cement near the aft gangway. Together, this added fifteen to twenty tons of weight. [11]

On the morning of 24 July, passengers began boarding Eastland on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets about 6:30 am, and by 7:10 am, the ship had reached her capacity of 2,572 passengers. The ship was packed, with many passengers standing on the open upper decks, and began to list slightly to the port side (away from the wharf). The crew attempted to stabilize the ship by admitting water into her ballast tanks, but to little avail. Sometime during the next 15 minutes, a number of passengers rushed to the port side, and at 7:28 am, Eastland lurched sharply to port, and then rolled completely onto her port side, coming to rest on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet (6.1 m) below the surface barely half the vessel was submerged. Many other passengers had already moved below decks on this relatively cool and damp morning to warm themselves before the departure. Consequently, hundreds of people were trapped inside by the water and the sudden rollover some were crushed by heavy furniture, including pianos, bookcases, and tables. Although the ship was only 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the wharf, and in spite of the quick response by the crew of a nearby vessel, Kenosha, which came alongside the hull to allow those stranded on the capsized vessel to leap to safety, a total of 844 passengers and four crew members died in the disaster.

The bodies of the victims were taken to various temporary morgues established in the area for identification by afternoon, the remaining unidentified bodies were consolidated in the Armory of the 2nd Regiment. [7] [12]

In the aftermath, the Western Electric Company provided $100,000 to relief and recovery efforts of family members of the victims of the disaster.

One of the people who were scheduled to be on Eastland was 20-year-old George Halas, an American football player, who was delayed leaving for the dock, and arrived after the ship had overturned. His name was listed on the list of deceased in newspapers, but when fraternity brothers visited his home to send their condolences, he was revealed to be unharmed. Halas would go on to become coach and owner of the Chicago Bears and a founding member of the National Football League. His friend and future Bears executive Ralph Brizzolara and his brother were on the Eastland when she capsized, though they escaped through portholes. [13] Despite stories to the contrary, no reliable evidence indicates Jack Benny was aboard Eastland or scheduled to be on the excursion possibly the basis for this report was that Eastland was a training vessel during World War I and Benny received his training in the Great Lakes naval base, where Eastland was stationed.

The first known film footage taken of the recovery efforts was discovered and then released during early 2015 by a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. [14]

Marion Eichholz – the last known survivor of the capsizing – died on 24 November 2014, at the age of 102. [15]

Eastland disaster and the media Edit

Writer Jack Woodford witnessed the disaster and gave a first-hand account to the Herald and Examiner, a Chicago newspaper. In his autobiography, Woodford writes:

And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn't believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.

Newspapers played a significant part in not only publicizing the Eastland disaster, but also creating the public memory of the catastrophe. The newspapers' purpose, audience, and political and business associations influenced the newspapers to publish articles emphasizing who was to blame and why Eastland capsized. Consequently, the articles influenced how the court cases proceeded, and contributed to a dispute between Western Electric Company and some of its workers regarding how the company responded to the catastrophe.

Carl Sandburg, then known better as a journalist than a poet, wrote an angry account accusing regulators of ignoring safety issues and claimed that many of the workers were there on company orders for a staged picnic. [16] Sandburg also wrote a poem, "The Eastland", that contrasts the disaster with the mistreatment and poor health of the lower classes at the time. After first listing the quick, murderous horrors of the disaster, then surveying the slow, murderous horrors of extreme poverty, Sandburg concludes by comparing the two: "I see a dozen Eastlands/Every morning on my way to work/And a dozen more going home at night." [17] The poem was too harsh for publication when written but was eventually released as part of a collection of poems during 1993. [18]

The Eastland disaster was incorporated into the 1999 series premiere of the Disney Channel original series So Weird. In the episode, teenaged paranormal enthusiast Fiona Phillips (actress Cara DeLizia) encounters the ghost of a young boy who drowned during the capsizing while exploring a nightclub near the Chicago River, and attempts to learn why he has contacted her. [19]

During 2012, Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre produced an original musical about the disaster entitled Eastland: A New Musical, written by Andy White and scored by Ben Collins-Sussman and Andre Pluess. [20] [21] The Eastland disaster is also pivotal to the story of one family told in the play/musical Failure: A Love Story, written by Philip Dawkins, which premiered in Chicago in 2012. Its Los Angeles production, directed by Michael Matthews, and produced by Couerage Theater Company, premiered on 24 July 2015 – the 100th anniversary of the Eastland tragedy. [22]

Inquiry and indictments Edit

A grand jury indicted the president and three other officers of the steamship company for manslaughter, and the ship's captain and engineer for criminal carelessness, and found that the disaster was caused by "conditions of instability" caused by any or all of overloading of passengers, mishandling of water ballast, or the construction of the ship. [23]

Federal extradition hearings were held to compel the six indicted men to come from Michigan to Illinois for trial. During the hearings, principal witness Sidney Jenks, president of the shipbuilding company that built Eastland, testified that her first owners wanted a fast ship to transport fruit, and he designed one capable of making 20 mph (32 km/h) and carrying 500 passengers. Defense counsel Clarence Darrow asked whether he had ever worried about the conversion of the ship into a passenger steamer with a capacity of 2,500 or more passengers. Jenks replied, "I had no way of knowing the quantity of its business after it left our yards. No, I did not worry about the Eastland." Jenks testified that an actual stability test of the ship never occurred, and stated that after tilting to an angle of 45° at launching, "it righted itself as straight as a church, satisfactorily demonstrating its stability." [24]

The court refused extradition, holding the evidence was too weak, with "barely a scintilla of proof" to establish probable cause to find the six guilty. The court reasoned that the four company officers were not aboard the ship, and that every act charged against the captain and engineer was done in the ordinary course of business, "more consistent with innocence than with guilt." The court also reasoned that Eastland "was operated for years and carried thousands safely", and that for this reason no one could say that the accused parties were unjustified in believing the ship seaworthy. [25]

Everyday Eastland

What’s Oprah’s connection to the Eastland? The answer is simply, Harpo Studios. The building at 1058 W. Washington Street has a long and fascinating history here in Chicago.

Harpo Studios was originally a cold storage warehouse used, at the time of the Eastland in 1915, as an armory for the Second Regiment National Guard. According to George W. Hilton in his book, Eastland, Legacy of the Titanic, after the capsizing, corpses fished from the Chicago River were taken to the SS Theodore Roosevelt (the second ship scheduled to depart for the Western Electric outing that day), the overflow then moved to the basement of the Reid-Murdoch grocery warehouse directly across the river from the Eastland.

Hundreds upon hundreds of drowning victims quickly piled up and it became apparent to the city that they needed a much larger facility. The 88,000 square-foot Armory was suggested as a temporary morgue, and by the afternoon of the disaster, the majority of bodies were transferred to that site. While a few bodies were taken directly to mortuaries, in the end, a total of 749 corpses were identified and processed through the 2nd Regiment Armory. reports that the armory remained a cold storage warehouse until the 1940’s when it was converted to the Roller Bowl roller rink. In the 1950’s, the building was converted again, this time into the Fred Niles Studios. They filmed commercials and movies there as well as the Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom!

Urban legend has it that the building is haunted by the ghosts of the Eastland victims. In March of 2009, Ryan Smith reported in an article for the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye that the most infamous apparition is a spirit called the Gray Lady who has been spotted in the facility wearing her vintage dress and hat. Her image has supposedly been caught on security cameras. Harpo employees have also reported hearing the sounds of children laughing, old-time music, the thunder of multiple footsteps, and the clinking of glasses. Doors have slammed shut on their own. There’s even rumors of a mysterious scent of lavender perfume lingering in the air. The Gray Lady’s perhaps?

Crain’s Chicago Business reported in March of this year that Harpo Studios would be sold to Sterling Bay Company. I hope the new owners realize the historical significance of this very unique building. Maybe someday, the city of Chicago will make the building a Historical Landmark.

Hundreds drown in Eastland disaster - HISTORY

Thomas Chakinis, stood on victim’s shoulder to keep from drowning

By Eastland Disaster Historical Society

23-May-16 – 21-year-old Thomas Chakinis had fled starvation in Greece in 1911 and immigrated to Chicago, where he married, raised four children, and operated two restaurants. On the morning of July 24, 1915, he boarded the SS Eastland. Tom survived, and in his mid-80s still vividly recalled the tragedy, gesturing and lapsing into Greek every time he told his story.

It was a Saturday, 7:30 in the morning. Nearly 2,000 Western Electric Hawthorne plant employees and their families boarded the steamer…bound for a day-long company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. As they waited for the boat to leave, they sang and nibbled at their picnic lunches.

He remembers sitting in a chair on the top deck with his friend, Ted Hallas , who pointed to the life preservers above them and said, “Grab onto these in case of an accident.” Tom thought little of the comment. He had sailed from Greece a few years before with no mishap.

When the ship capsized, “the poor people who were sitting on the other side of the boat slid, like vrooosh ,“ Tom recalls, making a downhill motion with his hand. Tom could not swim, so he slid toward the staircase leading to the lower deck and lunged for the railing. He saw hundreds of bodies on the lower deck below him.

“I was lucky all the people were under me,“ he said. “I remember I was standing on somebody’s shoulder so I didn’t drown.“

Tom was later pulled onto the dock by a fireman. His friend, Ted, was not as fortunate. He was swept away as soon as the Eastland capsized.

Most survivors returned to work immediately after the disaster, says Thomas. “The people that survived didn’t want to hear anything more about it. You tried to forget.“

But Tom never forgot. Years later, he forbade his children from going near the water. He never boarded a boat again.

Vintage: The Eastland disaster (1915)

A large crowd of horrified spectators watched as the S.S. Eastland – only a few feet from the shore of the Chicago River downtown — turned on its side. It was in just 20 feet of water, but that was deep enough to drown 844 people who were trapped or trampled below decks.

Chicago Tribune historical photo The ill-fated steamer S.S. Eastland rests on her side in the Chicago River, with rescuers conducting investigations on the dead on the ships upturned side. The boat turned over within 12 feet of the shore.

Chicago Tribune historical photo The S.S. Eastland rests on its side in the Chicago River after slowly rolling over and drowning 844 people on July 24, 1915.

Chicago Tribune historical photo Rescuers recover the body of a girl from the river, a victim of the S.S. Eastland sinking disaster on July 24, 1915.

Chicago History Museum The S.S. Eastland on its side in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915.

Chicago Tribune historical photo Scenes of weeping survivors were common along the river following the S.S. Eastland steamship disaster, when the ship slowly settled on its side and 844 people drowned.

Chicago Tribune historical photo The tugboat Kenosha served as a floating bridge to let survivors reach safety after the S.S. Eastland steamship disaster on July 24, 1915. The Eastland was in only 20 feet of water, but that was deep enough to drown 844 people.

Chicago Tribune historical photo The Second Regiment Armory, on Washington Boulevard, served as a temporary morgue for victims of the S.S. Eastland steamship disaster on July 24, 1915. Some people were never identified.

Chicago Tribune historical photo In a vacant store on the 200 block of Clark Street near the river, an information bureau was established shortly after the Eastland capsized. Lists of the victims and survivors were compiled and information was disseminated to relatives and friends at the bureau.

Warning: This video is graphic:

In 1915, more than 800 people died in Chicago's deadliest disaster.

As stated, a large crowd of spectators (including George Halas) had already gathered to see the ship off and wish her a bon voyage. Instead, they actually witnessed the Eastland overturn completely and spill hundreds of their friends and relatives into the water. Although the river was only 20 feet deep, that was deep enough to drown 844 people who had been thrown into the water or trapped and/or trampled below decks.

Note: I’ve been asked, “Why didn’t they just swim to safety?” That question is answered in the above video…and it is not the answer most people will understand.

Thus, July 24, 1915 marks the deadliest day ever in Chicago for any reason (including race riots, floods, blizzards, killer heat waves, even earthquakes and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (which clocks in at a distant second to the Eastland Disaster at “only” 300 dead)). Further, this was and remains the single most lethal peacetime inland waterway disaster in American history. (The Eastland Disaster occurred, of course, just three years after the R.M.S. Titanic met its fate in the icy North Atlantic Ocean).

Ghosts of the SS Eastland Haunt Chicago’s Waterfront

Table of Contents

The S.S. Eastland’s ghosts, haunt Chicago’s waterfront even after one-hundred years after the tragic capsizing event.

Interestingly, few people outside of Chicago know of the S.S. Eastland calamity. Even more are unaware that the fatal disaster is the greatest single loss of life of any ship on the Great Lakes.

The horrific event occurred when the Eastland, rolled over on its side while docked on the Chicago River. Hundreds of men, women and children on board drowned within minutes of the ship rolling over. Not long after, the area of Chicago’s Clark and Lasalle Streets report ghostly activity.

It Was a Beautiful Day for a Picnic

In the early morning hours of July 24, 1915, the S.S. Eastland, docked between Clark and Lasalle Streets, waited for its passengers to arrive. The Western Electric Company had chartered the Eastland to transport employees, some entire families, to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.

The S.S. Eastland Steamer had Problems from the Start

The S.S. Eastland steamer, built in 1902, had the capacity for only 500 souls. Designed for lake excursions and transport produce on the return trips to Chicago, the Eastland had design flaws. The top-heavy Eastland steamer rolled and listed frequently when overloaded. Unfortunately, employees of the Western Electric company bound for the festivities that day, knew nothing of the ship’s instability.

War raged in Europe but on the morning of July 24th excited passengers pushed their way up the gangplank of the Eastland. Upper decks became crowded within minutes and the rest of the passengers crammed the decks below happy to be out of the morning chill. By 7:10 am, over 2,500 passengers filled the ship.

Just after 7:15 am, the crew became concerned as the boat started to list to port facing away from the pier. Water pumped into ballast tanks could not stop the list. and the vessel continued its alarming roll.

Panic and Terror Aboard the SS Eastland

On the upper deck, panicked, adults, many holding onto children and infants, spilled into the water. Others jumped for their lives. Onlookers were horrified as hundreds of people began to drown. Panicked passengers below deck climbed out of gangways and windows on the starboard side as the ship continued to lean toward port.

Other passengers found themselves trapped inside by water. Additionally, pianos, heavy bookcases and tables slammed into adults and children killing some instantly.

Just 58 minutes after boarding had commenced, the Eastland rolled over on its side settling into the shallow river bottom. Not surprising, a few onlookers jumped into the river to assist those floundering in the water.

Nearby Boats Rushed to Help Drowning Passengers

At the same time, nearby boats also rushed to help but by then it was too late to save scores of victims. To add to the chaos, screams heard inside the hull prompted rescue workers to clamber aboard and attempt to cut through the Eastland’s thick plating with torches.

When the hull was finally breached, only a handful of passengers were still alive. The happy news was that one entire family was rescued.

Read an eyewitness account:

…and then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.

Recovering Dead Men, Women, and Children

Photo: Chicago Tribune, 1915

City officials, arriving at the wharf, swiftly ordered makeshift morgues set up. It was decided that a large abandoned military armory* would serve as one.

For hours, boats circled the water near the Eastland looking for bodies.

This was a slow agonizing process as there were countless bodies needing to be pulled from the water. For several days, deep sea drivers struggled through mounds of debris, hoping to locate any additional bodies trapped on the river bottom. It was dangerous work.

More than once, a diver would have to surface quickly or die when oxygen tubes became twisted and air was cut off. Thankfully, no further fatalities occurred to add to the number of dead.

Recovered bodies were loaded on trucks, ambulances, and horse and buggy lined up waiting to move them to the temporary morgues. By mid-afternoon, a mass of unidentified bodies lined the armory floor. Next, came the grim task of identifying the dead and reuniting families for burial.

Of the estimated 2,500 passengers and crew members on board, 844 people lost their lives, including crew members and 22 entire families.

Rumors of Hauntings Quickly Spread When Eastland Salvaged

Shortly after the disaster, the Eastland was raised to be sold. It was subsequently moved near the Halsted Street Bridge. It was then that rumors the ship was haunted began. At night, people crossing the Halsted Bridge near the Eastland ship, always did so hurriedly.

The assigned caretaker, Captain M.L. Edwards (not the Eastland’s captain), lived on board the ship. Edwards claimed he was awakened nightly by moaning sounds and loud banging noises. For sanity’s sake, he attributed the sounds to the boat’s waterlogged damage.

In fact, Edwards later reported to newspapers, he was very glad to move off the ship. In December of 1915, the US Navy** bought the ship and it served in various naval capacities for the next three decades. Finally, the rickety Eastland met its own death in 1945 when sold for scrap.

Strange Sights and Sounds Reported in Disaster Area

Pedestrians walking past the disaster site, report hearing sounds of loud splashing often accompanied by chilling screams and moans. Incredibly, when peering into the river from the overlook, the water is calm.

Additionally, frequenters of riverside cafes that line the disaster site, occasionally witness inexplicable surges of water flood the river walk. Could this be a residual replay of water thrown on the lower docks when the Eastland rolled over?

Furthermore, paranormal claims from folks taking a casual stroll along the river are often reported. These include seeing unusual activity in the water. Upon closer inspection, they’re shocked by the reflections of faces with lifeless eyes staring up at them.

The Disaster Site Today

Oprah Winfrey has Ghosts

The armory was eventually demolished and new structures were built the site. The Oprah Winfrey Talk Show (Harpo Media Productions), inhabit one such building.

Staff members, security guards, as well as maintenance workers, claim that ghosts of the disaster victims from the Eastland, roam the building. Several employees report encounters with a woman in a long, gray dress.

The ghost frequently wanders the corridors of Oprah’s studio. If approached, she immediately disappears. Some witnesses believe the woman is the specter of a mourner who came looking for her family. Whereas, others sense that she’s drowning victim.

Also, the staff claims to hearing whispers, sobbing, moaning, children laughing, as well as phantom footsteps.

The footsteps sound like a large group of people climbing up the lobby staircase when none are to be seen. Furthermore, doors located nearby, open and close by themselves–some slamming. Other times, loud shouting is heard with no apparent outside noise going on.

Disasters of such magnitude often leave a paranormal energy signature in the area where the event happened. Undoubtedly, the site of the former armory hosts residual replays of the 1915 disaster.

TV Show Uncovers Ghosts at a Nightclub

In 1997, Sightings, a paranormal the television show, filmed an episode at the Excalibur Night Club located on Dearborn Street. The night club happens to be incredibly close to where the disaster took place.

The segment features host, Tim White. During the filming, White hears a child’s voice say, “Stop and watch me.” In fact, Excalibur’s employees claim to frequently hear children’s voices.

A little girl in old-fashioned dress, is sometimes seen peering over the railing in the club’s Dome Room. Additionally, a bluish-colored shape is occasionally spotted floating up the stairs. (Whether these incidents are related to the Eastland disaster, or belong to a part of Chicago’s violent criminal past is undetermined.)

*An interesting side note: The armory location would later become the home of Harpo Studios (Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia production company).

**The author couldn’t locate additional accounts of shipboard haunting after the Navy took over the Eastland (renamed U.S.S Wilmette). However, numerous books on the S.S. Eastland disaster exist. Perhaps one of them reveals stories of subsequent haunting.

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Watch the video: SS Eastland Disaster Terrifying last Moments on the Ship