It was a scene of inexplicable horror. On July 24, 1915, 99 years ago this Thursday, the top-heavy steamer Eastland rolled onto its side in the Chicago River, taking with it the lives of more than 840 passengers. The Eastland disaster remains one of the greatest maritime disasters in U.S. history — and it all happened in the heart of bustling downtown Chicago.
Not unexpectedly, a disaster of this magnitude reverberated through Bloomington and countless cities and towns within the orbit of Chicago. Local insurance man Francis Bartels, for example, lost his brother Joseph, receiving the news via telegram from their mother in Chicago. John P. Butler, the courthouse elevator operator, lost a niece and a cousin. The niece left several children, including a six-month-old.
The morning of the disaster, the SS Eastland was docked on the south side of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle streets, chartered by the Western Electric Co. so employees of its sprawling Hawthorne Works could enjoy a Lake Michigan excursion and a picnic in Michigan City, Ind. By 7:10 a.m., more than 2,500 workers, friends and family members had crammed aboard the passenger steamer.
The Eastland was notoriously top heavy and prone to listing, a design flaw exacerbated by the recent addition of a complete set of lifeboats (required, ironically, by maritime safety reforms enacted after the sinking of the Titanic). As passengers came aboard that morning the Eastland began listing to the starboard (or wharf) side and then to the port (river) side, with the crew responding by adding water to the ballast tanks in an attempt to stabilize the unsteady vessel.
At 7:28 a.m., the Eastland — to the horror of those aboard and on the shore — began a final, 90-degree roll toward the river, finally coming to rest on its side.
Many of those on the decks were thrown into the river, which at that time was little more than an open sewer, while many of those trapped inside and below the water line had no chance to get out. Others were crushed by heavy furniture and tumbling debris in the topsy-turvy compartments and passageways. A substantial number of Western Electric dead were foreign-born single women, many of them Czechs.
McLean County Circuit Clerk John G. Allen happened to be in Chicago with his family at the time, and he reached the unfolding disaster after catching sight of baggage, clothing and other wreckage floating down the Chicago River. “I saw two boys about 12 years of age rescued who clung to chairs thrown in the river,” he told The Pantagraph. “I also saw a mother and her five-year-old daughter rescued from the upper deck. They had grabbed hold of the railing and had clung there until taken down. The child was seemingly none the worse for her experience, but the mother was a raving maniac.”
More harrowing were the stories of survivors. Western Electric Co. employee Leonard Jackson wrote a lengthy account of the disaster to his brother Bert, a printer for The Daily Bulletin, another Bloomington newspaper. “While the boat was going over I was on a stairway leading to the next deck below,” read Jackson’s letter, a part of which was published in The Bulletin. “There was a grinding noise, creaking of timbers and screams of the thousands on board all at once.”
Jackson made it outside and onto the outer hull and began pulling out anyone alive. “We looked down the portholes and saw lots of them struggling below,” he wrote. “I helped rescue fully 40. I was on the boat for an hour after it went over, and only left then because the police had come and chased off all who were in citizens’ clothes.”
Bloomington barber Oscar Schindler witnessed the disaster from a streetcar on the Clark Street bridge. “It was one horrible dream, so it seemed to me,” he related to The Bulletin. “People in the river battled with one another for their lives. The few who could swim had little more chance of escaping with their lives than those less fortunate so thickly were the waters strewn with human beings.”
Schindler remained a close observer for some 15 minutes before the police chased him away. “Men, women and children stood about wringing their hands in despair, crying over lost ones, and were frantic in their search for members of their families,” he said. “The whole affair was a sickening one.”
Salvage workers righted the Eastland a month after the disaster, and sometime after it was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and re-commissioned as the gunboat USS Wilmette. The ship served as a trainer for two world wars before being sold for scrap in 1946.