The Eastland Ship Disaster

The Eastland Ship Disaster

Today there are few who are familiar with the loss of the excursion ship, the S.S. Eastland, in July of 1915 at dock in the Chicago River. Loaded to capacity with over 2500 passengers, including many women and children excited and eager for a picnic on Michigan Island that was sponsored once a year by their employer, Western Electric, it began to list first to starboard, then port, righted itself, and then, finally began its terminal list to port landing on its side in 20 feet of water.

Over 844 passengers lost their lives, including 22 entire families. More passengers died on the Eastland than on the Titanic which had sunk three years before (the much greater number of crew members on the Titanic increased the total loss on the Titanic). Trapped below deck where many had taken shelter to warm up and avoid a light rain, a large number of them were also crushed by pianos, ice boxes and other heavy pieces of furniture that were situated in many of the cabins and on the decks.

Most of the casualties were single men and women who worked at Western Electric at the Hawthorne Plant in Cicero, Illinois. However, there were many married couples as well, each with one or two children and quite a few infants. Women and children made up the largest percentage of the victims. Nineteen families were left parentless by the disaster.

One witness described what he saw as follows:

“I saw what appeared to be four or five hundred people struggling in the water, many of them obviously unable to swim. Mothers were trying desperately to keep their small children from drowning. People on the riverbank were screaming in terror… I could see the commission of men of the South Water Street Market, many of whom I recognized, frantically hurling chicken crates as far out into the water as they could. People were clutching the crates and managing to stay afloat that way.”

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A survivor, Anna Eichholz, described how she slid into the water, where she went under and saw many baby buggies with babies inside… She said she thought she was going to die, and she said she felt that drowning was a peaceful way to go. She surfaced again, and someone was yelling for her to grab the rope, which she did.

Great courage was exhibited by the divers who entered flooded compartments to bring out the dead. Stuffed into ungainly and clumsy diving suits, tethered to the surface only by a safety line, and with vulnerable air hoses, they made their way amidst the debris and darkness to retrieve all who had perished. Completely exhausted, some had to be forced to stop.

The postmortem determined that the ship had design flaws that left its center of gravity too high. It’s propensity to list had already been noted in earlier incidents by the crew. The retrofitting of lifeboats on its upper decks, required by the federal Seamen’s Act signed into law after the Titanic disaster, exacerbated this problem. Also, the internal ballasts were inadequate to the task, and starboard and port ballasts could not be emptied and filled at the same time. The shifting of the passengers who in large numbers were congregating on the upper decks was the final straw.

Many of those who died were taken to a cold storage facility that later become Harpo Studios, the sound stage for the Oprah Winfrey Show. Most of the survivors just went home, soaking wet, to the grateful relief of their families. The S.S. Eastland itself was later raised and renamed the Wilmette, and served as a training ship for naval reservists until she was finally scrapped in 1947.

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