the Eastland Disaster

Real Estate Agent with Coldwell Banker Residential

Unless you've lived under a rock for the last 100 years, (and it'd have to be a big rock!) everyone has heard of the disaster of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.  The titanic went to the bottom of the Atlantic on her Maiden voyage on April 15, 1912, and resulted in the deaths of 1517 people making it one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in History.

The Titanic was the subject of books, investigations, films, songs, and the vehicle that carried Leonardo DiCaprio to stardom.

But how many of you know about the Eastland Disaster?.... ahh... I thought not. Being in Chicago, we are a bit more familiar with this disaster, although many Chicagoans are unaware as well, of the disaster that took place, only a few years after the Titanic, right here on the Chicago river.

Early on the morning of Saturday, July 24, 1915, with a light rain falling and the air filled with much anticipation and excitement, thousands were gathering along the Chicago River for Western Electric's fifth annual employee picnic.  In fact, over 7,000 tickets had been purchased.

The S.S. Eastland, known as the "speed queen of the Great Lakes," was part of a fleet of five excursion boats assigned to take Western Electric employees, their families and friends across Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana, for the day's festivities.

But the Eastland, docked at the Clark Street Bridge, never left the Chicago River.  It instead slowly rolled onto it's port side into the river at the wharf's edge with over 2,500 passengers, including crew members, on board.  Over 800 people lost their lives, (estimates go as high as 1080) including 22 entire families.

Some drowned, some were crushed by heavy objects (like pianos and cabinets) as they fell within the ship, and some who'd jumped from the ship as she rolled, were crushed by the ship herself, as they couldn't swim away quickly enough.

There are many stories, and many theories about why the Eastland simply rolled over in the river's 20 foot depth, trapping many inside her hull.  Some blame the captain, some blame faulty ballast tanks, and some blamed the passengers for rushing to the port side of the ship all at once.

In 1915, the new federal Seaman's Act had been passed because of the RMS Titanic disaster. This required retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on the Eastland as on many other passenger vessels. Although the lifeboats mandated by this act were said to have the potential to cause many Great Lakes boats to capsize, it was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. The Eastland was already so top-heavy that it had special restrictions concerning the number of passengers that could be carried. The additional weight of the new lifeboats made the ship even more unstable than before.

Whatever the reason, the city moblized all of it's resources to try and help free those still trapped inside the ship.  They sent in divers (these were divers in heavy diving suits, attached with a hose to the surface), they used acetylene torches to cut the hull open, laypeople dove off the dock to assist those treading water in the river

Many of the bodies were taken to a cold storage warehouse in the vicinity, which has since been transformed into Harpo Studios, today's sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show.

A 14-year old girl, who worked for Western Electric survived the Eastland disaster. She was on a lower level, when the ship rolled over, but a locker fell over her and created an air pocket that allowed her to breath.  She was told to report to work on the following Monday, or she would lose her job.  She got no medical attention from the company, and apparently no sympathy.  Over time she developed a nervous tic... surprise, suprise.

Another man worked nearby. That morning, he was supposed to take the Eastland across the lake to Michigan city, where he was going to hop a train, to visit his girlfriend.  He boarded the Eastland, but never made it to see his girlfriend.  His body was found beneath a piano on the Eastland.  His parents blamed the girlfriend for his death, and never spoke with her again.

from the Boat that Never left town:

O ye who now are mourning, Your loved ones passed away,
Another Life is dawning, With Everlasting Day!
For in the Realms Eternal, On Heaven's shores above
Someday your stricken hearts will meet, The lost ones that ye love.


Some of the photos (and some of the text) used in this article are courtesy of the Chicago Historical Museum.

The Chicago History Museum encourages use of these images to the extent permitted under the fair use clause of the 1976 Copyright Act, but they do ask that a credit line be included with each image used.  (if you hover your mouse over each photo, you'll see that I have done just that)

Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60614-6038
Phone: (312) 642-4600, E-mail:, Fax: (312) 266-2076


Some of the photos and text are courtesty of:

Eastland Disaster Historical Society
PO Box 2013
Arlington Heights, IL 60006-2013
1-877-865-6295 (office)
















According the Wikipedia, the S.S. Eastland found new life, after her death...

After the Eastland was raised in October 1915, she was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and recommissioned as USS Wilmette stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base. She was converted to a gunboat, renamed Wilmette on 20 February 1918, and commissioned on 20 September 1918 with Capt. William B. Wells in command. Commissioned late in World War I, Wilmette saw no combat service. 

On June 7, 1921, the Wilmette was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the United States after World War I. The guns of the Wilmette were manned by Gunner's Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in World War I, and Gunner's Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo in the conflict. For the remainder of her 25-year career, the gunboat served as a training ship for naval reservists in the 9th, 10th, and 11th Naval Districts. She made voyages along the shores of the Great Lakes carrying trainees assigned to her from the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Wilmette remained in commission, carrying out her reserve training mission until she was placed "out of commission, in service," on 15 February 1940.

Designated IX-29 on 17 February 1941, she resumed training duty at Chicago on 30 March 1942, preparing armed guard crews for duty manning the guns on armed merchantmen. That assignment continued until the end of World War II in Europe obviated measures to protect transatlantic merchant shipping from German U-boats. On 9 April 1945, she was returned to full commission for a brief interval. Wilmette was decommissioned on 28 November 1945, and her name was struck from the Navy list on 19 December 1945. In 1946, the Wilmette was offered up for sale. Finding no takers, on 31 October 1946, she was sold to the Hyman Michaels Co. for scrapping. She was demolished in 1947.

Posted by

 ALAN MAY, Realtor®   
Specializing in Evanston Real Estate and North Shore Real Estate

Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate, 1710 Central Street, Evanston, IL 60201
847.425.3779      Cell: 847.924.3313      Email:

Evanston Real Estate & North Shore Real Estate
Licensed in Illinois



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Sidney Kutchuk - Realty Works Temecula Kutchuk - Realty Works Temecula
Realty Works Temecula - Temecula, CA
Realty Works Temecula

I think you must be a history professor!  I learn so much from your blogs and the photo's are great.  I am so glad that Liz pointed me in your direction.  I see why she speaks so highly of you!

Nov 11, 2008 02:40 AM #1
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Alan, I had never heard of this disaster----sounds like there would be at least one movie in there somewhere.

Nov 11, 2008 02:42 AM #2
Alan May
Coldwell Banker Residential - Evanston, IL
Helping you find your way home.

Nope, Jane, not a history professor (well, maybe a frustrated history professor wannabee), but thank you for the kind words.

Charles, it surely seems worth a book or two.... try The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy by Jay Bonansinga.

Nov 11, 2008 04:43 AM #3
Melissa Breeland
Residential Mortgage of SC - Charleston, SC really put alot into this. Great job...well done...bravo! Please do not submit to "Blogs That Really Suck" because we will have to turn you down. :)


Nov 11, 2008 09:25 AM #4
Alan May
Coldwell Banker Residential - Evanston, IL
Helping you find your way home.

LOL... thanks Melissa (I think).

Nov 11, 2008 10:10 AM #5
Sharon Williams

Nice piece, Alan! I'm going to link to it from my Chicago History blog,

Nov 11, 2008 10:56 PM #6
Not a real person
San Diego, CA

Nice history lesson. If I remember correctly, a few days ago was also the anniversary of the wrreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald back around 1976 or so.

Nov 12, 2008 10:30 AM #7
Alan May
Coldwell Banker Residential - Evanston, IL
Helping you find your way home.

You are correct, Russel, November 10, 1975... i just looked it up.  Good memory.

Nov 12, 2008 12:04 PM #8

Alan - 

This is a wonderfully informative post for those not in-the-know; a friend posted a link to it today on Facebook, this being the actual anniversary date of the Eastland disaster.  I feel you must've posted this years ago (now I see the date was in 2008), because you didn't mention the current production at Lookingglass Theatre Co. in Chicago, going on through August 19 (2012), called, "Eastland, A New Musical." Since you have some interest in this event, I hope you know about the musical and have seen it, or will see it before it closes. Jay Bonansinga's book was a huge inspiration and useful tool to the writer, Andy White, and Jay has seen the show and participated in a talk-back after the show.

Full disclosure - I am in the ensemble of 12 actors/singers/musicians - hence my tremendous interest in all things Eastland.  The musical has been extremely well-received, and is a highly emotional experience for the audience (we performers can see their faces much of the time in the intimate theatre setting, and can easily see the tears and the gasps and the heartbreak).

I hope you'll get to come see the show:



Jul 23, 2012 11:29 PM #9
Alan May
Coldwell Banker Residential - Evanston, IL
Helping you find your way home.

Jeanne - indeed, I did write this about 4 years ago.  I did know that it was the anniversary... and am excited to hear about the looking glass theatre production.

Jul 23, 2012 11:33 PM #10
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Alan May

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