Early on the morning of 24 July 1915, thousands of employees, friends, and families of the Western Electric Company gathered on the docks along the Chicago River, waiting to board one of five excursion ships which had been hired to take them over to the Michigan City shore for the annual company picnic.
The SS Eastland was meant to be the first ship to depart and by 7:10 a.m. was fully loaded with 2,500 passengers and readying to set out. However, shortly after the ship began boarding at 6:30 a.m., it had begun to list, first to starboard and then to port while the crew worked to right the ship and boarding continued. By 7:28 a.m. while the ship was beginning to move away from the wharf, the list had become too great to counterbalance, and the ship rolled over into the Chicago River, coming to rest in the muddy sediment and 20 feet of water by 7:30 a.m.
Passengers had barely any notice of danger and as the list became severe and dishes began crashing off shelves, many ran for the staircases which turned into death traps. In the end, 844 people including several whole families perished in the disaster. It is the third worst peacetime maritime disaster in United States history (after the Sultana in 1865 with 1,700 fatalities and the PS General Slocum in 1904 in New York City with 1,021 fatalities).
In the grand tradition of blaming the victims, a persistent explanation that the passengers rushed the railings causing the ship to flop over has survived to the present day in some simplistic listings of the disaster (including Wikipedia so disregard that bit), but this was simply not the case. A great deal of in-depth information, including first-hand accounts, documentary and photographic evidence, and post-mortem investigation information exists that fully debunks this claim. A combination of negligence by the ship-owners who pushed to have the ship certified without a proper inspection (ironically, after safety updates made in the wake of the Titanic disaster) and poor choices by the ship’s captain prior to the incident about ship procedures as well as an underreaction to the initial listing seem to be primarily at fault in the accident. There is an entire, separate story about the corruption that thwarted attempts to hold the Eastland‘s owners accountable that is worth the time if you want to be outraged about something that happened hundred years ago.
This page is not an attempt to fully explain the disaster, and I recommend the resources below as excellent places to learn more. See The Eastland Disaster category on this blog for posts I’ve written about some of the victims of the disaster who are buried in Chicago area cemeteries.
- Chicago Stories: The Eastland Disaster (video documentary — WBEZ/PBS)
- Eastland Disaster Historical Society (website)
- Eastland Memorial Society (archive.org)
- Eastland: The Shipwreck That Shook America (documentary)
Also known as: EASTLAND: Chicago’s Deadliest Day (trailer on YouTube)
- SS Eastland (Wikipedia)
- The Eastland Disaster Killed More Passengers Than the Titanic and the Lusitania. Why Has It Been Forgotten? (smithsonianmag.com)
- Eastland Disaster Memorial (findagrave.com)
- Before and After: Watching from the River’s Edge (Act 2 is an absolutely devastating story about the PS General Slocum — This American Life, Episode 194)
- Location of burials assisted by The Eastland Disaster Booklet, Forest Park Historical Society
- Eastland Concordia: a Virtual Cemetery (my compilation on findagrave.com)