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Wed Jul 24, 2019, 05:09 AM

104 Years Ago Today; Excursion steamer SS Eastland capsizes in Chicago River-844 dead


SS Eastland docked in Cleveland before the disaster

The SS Eastland was a passenger ship based in Chicago and used for tours. On July 24, 1915, the ship rolled over onto her side while tied to a dock in the Chicago River. A total of 844 passengers and crew were killed in what was the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes.

After the disaster, Eastland was salvaged and sold to the United States Navy. After restorations and modifications, Eastland was designated a gunboat and renamed USS Wilmette. She was used primarily as a training vessel on the Great Lakes, and was scrapped after World War II.


The Eastland disaster
On July 24, 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. 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 of them 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. This additional weight may have made Eastland more dangerous by making it even more top-heavy. Some argued that other Great Lakes ships would suffer from the same problem. Nonetheless, it was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. Eastland was already so top-heavy that it 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.

On the morning of July 24, 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 its 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 to its 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 its port side, coming to rest on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet (6.1 m) below the surface. Many other passengers had already moved below decks on this relatively cool and damp morning to warm 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.

Passengers being rescued from the hull of the Eastland by a tugboat.

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, on the site which was later transformed into Harpo Studios, but has since been demolished to make room for a new McDonald's corporation headquarters.

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

Victim recovered from the Eastland

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 it capsized, though they escaped through portholes. 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.

View of Eastland from fire tug

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.

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

Eastland disaster and the media
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. 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." The poem was too harsh for publication when written but was eventually released as part of a collection of poems during 1993.

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.

During 2012, Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre produced an original musical about the disaster entitled Eastland: A New Musical and written by Andy White. 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 July 24, 2015 – the 100th anniversary of the Eastland tragedy.

Inquiry and indictments
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.

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."

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.


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Reply 104 Years Ago Today; Excursion steamer SS Eastland capsizes in Chicago River-844 dead (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Jul 24 OP
mahatmakanejeeves Jul 24 #1
IcyPeas Jul 24 #3
Blue_Tires Jul 24 #2

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Jul 24, 2019, 01:47 PM

1. The first known film footage taken of the recovery efforts was discovered and then released during..

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.

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

Chicago Tribune
Published on Jul 16, 2015

Over 800 people died when the S.S. Eastland capsized in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. Now, 100 years later, recently unearthed photos from the Chicago Tribune and recently discovered film from various newsreel sources have given historians a new look at this American maritime tragedy. (John Owens, Chicago Tribune)

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Reply #1)

Wed Jul 24, 2019, 02:33 PM

3. what a discovery to find those glass slides!

the film is amazing. I've never heard of this disaster. It capsized in the river which was only 20 feet deep.

the womens' clothing was very heavy and they suspect that caused a lot of their deaths.

thank you for posting this historical film.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Jul 24, 2019, 02:09 PM

2. kick

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