A Brief History
On July 24, 1915, the SS Eastland, a passenger ship only 265 feet long and 38 feet wide, rolled over while tied up at dock, killing 848 people, the greatest loss of life in any Great Lakes maritime disaster.
The Eastland had been in service since 1903, carrying passengers from Chicago to South Haven and back for 3 years, and then back and forth from Cleveland and Cedar Point for the next 8 years. In 1914 she changed hands again and worked the Chicago to St. Joseph, Michigan route.
After the Titanic disaster, maritime safety laws changed, requiring ships to have adequate lifeboats for all passengers. The extra weight topside on the Eastland may well have contributed to the disaster that followed. It was well realized that the already top heavy ship could be dangerously unstable with those extra boats, and precautions were made to mitigate the danger. On the fateful day, over 2500 passengers crammed onto the ship, on their way to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.
As the ship loaded at the dock in the Chicago River, it started listing to port. The crew tried to trim the ship by admitting ballast water into starboard tanks, but when a large crowd of passengers suddenly went to the port side of the ship, the ship rolled over, stopped from going completely upside down by the 20 foot depth of the river (the ship drew 19’6” with max load).
Many of the passengers had moved below decks for the trip and were trapped under water. Others were crushed by the weight of people and equipment that fell over, including pianos and other heavy furnishings. In spite of the ship being tied up to the dock, 844 passengers and 4 crew members died.
An investigation blamed the design of the ship, the operating company, the Captain of the ship and the ship’s engineer. Extradition was refused by a federal court on the basis that there was no compelling criminal case to be made.
The Eastland was salvaged and sold to the US Navy where she got a second life as the gunboat USS Wilmette. As a gunboat, she was armed with 4 X 4” guns, 2 X 3” guns, and 2 X 1 pounder guns. Her service was mainly as a training and reserve ship.
Writer Carl Sandburg wrote an article and poem about the incident, berating the industrialists that staged the picnic and those that ran the ship lines. The poem, The Eastland, was considered so harsh in its day that it was not released until 1993. A memorial to this massive disaster was not erected until 1989, consisting of a sign at the location along the river where the disaster occurred. Sadly, it was stolen in 2000, and was replaced in 2003. A more extensive memorial is planned.
Bonus fact: The rumor that comedian Jack Benny had been on the Eastland during the disaster is not true. What is true is that George Halas of NFL fame was supposed to be on the ship, but was late and was still ashore when it rolled over.
Bonus fact: The Eastland displaced 2600 tons and carried over 2500 passengers. The Titanic displaced 52,000 tons and carried almost 2500 passengers.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been on a ship on one of the Great Lakes? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read…
Cheatham, Marian. Eastland. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
The Eastland Disaster Historical Society, Ted Wachholz, et al. The Eastland Disaster (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing, 2005.