The Eastland Tragedy: Chicago’s Worst Disaster

Today, some love for the Second City, on the anniversary of Chicago’s worst disaster ever in terms of loss of life. You might think such stories out of our wheelhouse, but as with similar disasters we’ve written about, e.g., the General Slocum disaster, the R.M.S. Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, etc it’s a tale involving immigrants, issues of class and the like, which are not unrelated to our more customary beat of populist American art forms.

844 people died on the S.S. Eastland on July 24, 1915, nearly three times the number who perished in the Great Chicago Fire. It was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Great Lakes. Yet the tragedy remains largely unremembered. Let’s face it, there are a lot of mass tragedies to keep track of in this world.

The Eastland was an excursion steamship, somewhere between what we think of as a ferryboat and an ocean liner, from the days when water travel was much more common than it is today. People frequently booked passage on such vessels for relatively short trips, the sort of short hops modern people might take a train, bus or car to. In this particular case, the Western Electric company was sending some 7000 of their employees to Michigan City, Indiana for a company picnic. Five vessels were chartered, of which the Eastland was the first scheduled to depart. Over 2,500 people boarded that morning — but she was top heavy. Ballast had been let out of her hold. The ship had a history of listing — there had been at least three previous incidents. In the wake of the Slocum (1904) and the Titanic (1912), the Eastland had also been duly outfitted with lifeboats, making her further top heavy.

Ironically the lifeboats were useless in that day’s emergency. The boat flipped swiftly, trapping people underwater and below decks before they had a chance to flee from where they stood. Ironically,the Eastland was in shallows, just a few feet from shore, still boarding at the time. It reminds me of a couple of recent disasters, the Costa Concordia (Italy, 2012), and the MV Sewol (Korea, 2014), two events that had me glued to the news for days. So close, yet so far! As in the Slocum disaster, which decimated New York’s German community, a large number of the Eastland victims were Czech immigrants. Many of the dead were women, whose heavy petticoats and skirts dragged them down under the waves. The most notable passenger, retrospectively, was future Chicago Bears coach George Hallas. Some have mistakenly stated that Jack Benny was also aboard; the reality was more likely that he had ridden on the Eastland on trips previous to this fatal one.

Amazingly, this wasn’t the end of the ship! She was salvaged by the navy for use in World War One, rechristened the USS Wilmette, and served another three decades.