On July 24, 1915, hundreds of people perished when a passenger ship toppled over in the middle of Chicago. The SS Eastland shipwreck was one of the deadliest maritime disasters in American history. Yet, its story remains largely forgotten, even though it is no less tragic than the sinking of the better-known Titanic or Lusitania.
On that summer day in 1915, the Western Electric Company had contracted the Eastland to ferry some of its employees and their families across Lake Michigan for a company picnic. In total, roughly 2,500 passengers crowded onto the ship. Tragically, 844 people perished when the ship lost its balance and overturned into the Chicago River while only a few feet from shore.
The Eastland could be considered the Titanic of the Great Lakes. But unlike the Titanic, which sank in the open sea, the Eastland's disaster unfolded in the middle of a large, bustling city, a setting that added to the helpless horror that many eyewitnesses felt. Moreover, the Eastland wasn't carrying members of the moneyed set like the Titanic. Victims of the Eastland were mainly men, women, and children from working-class immigrant communities in an America that was largely hostile to them. More passengers lost their lives on the Eastland than the 832 passengers (not including crew) that perished on the Titanic.
From the litany of human errors that contributed to the disaster to the stories of victims and survivors, the sinking of the Eastland remains a tragedy worth remembering.
The Eastland disaster happened just three years after the Titanic sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The two maritime tragedies may have been linked. The Titanic didn't have enough lifeboats for all of its passengers. So in order to prevent another similar disaster, the United States Congress passed a new regulation in March 1915: Ships needed enough lifeboats to hold at least 75% of passengers.
American passenger vessels, including the Eastland, scrambled to meet the new regulation. Thousands of pounds of new lifeboats were added to the top of the ship only weeks before the disaster. It had only been engineered to hold six lifeboats, so the extra weight from the addition of more lifeboats on an already unstable ship could have been enough for the Eastland to lose its balance.
Western Electric's picnic day was meant to be a festive affair, and employees were encouraged to bring their families on the outing. When the ship capsized, it also doomed whole families. In total, 22 families perished in the disaster.
Among the families were the Sindelars: George and Josephine Sindelar lost their lives alongside their five children and an aunt. Another victim was a young boy whose body went unidentified for days because his entire family passed with him in the Chicago River. Dubbed "little feller" in the press, he was eventually identified as Willie Novotny, whose father, mother, and sister's lives also ended that day.
When the Eastland capsized, it was only 19 feet away from the dock. Some ropes were still attached from the ship to the dock. As the ship tumbled away from the dock, it plunged into water that was only 20 feet deep. But that was deep enough for the passengers who didn't know how to swim to perish. Helpless bystanders watched in horror as people drowned before their eyes.
Knowing how to swim wasn't a guarantee of survival, however. People who were on the side of the ship that dropped into the river were pinned down or crushed by the weight of objects and bodies falling on them. Most people were dressed up for the day out, and their clothing became heavy in the water. Worse, general pandemonium broke out inside the ship and in the water, as passengers' survival instincts kicked in. Some people were pulled underwater as others tried to push themselves out of the river.
Built in 1903, the Eastland was designed by a relatively inexperienced engineer who was more familiar with freight, not passenger, ships - so the ship was built to hold weight low, not high. As a result, the Eastland's design was a mess: It was too short, too narrow, and too tall, giving the ship a high center of gravity. Worse, its system of ballasts and water tanks to balance the ship wasn't very user-friendly.
All of the design flaws came to a head on that fateful summer morning in 1915. One witness recalled there could have been between 700 and 1,000 passengers on the top deck of the boat before it had turned over. The enormous weight on top probably further destabilized the ship, causing it to basically lose its balance and tumble into the Chicago River.