This Day in History: SS Eastland capsizes in the Chicago River

On this day in 1915, the excursion boat SS Eastland capsizes in the Chicago River. More than 800 were killed. It was the worst maritime disaster on the Great Lakes—and one of America’s worst such incidents during peacetime.

Twenty-two whole families were lost. Nearly 200 women, including three pregnant women, were widowed. In the end, more passengers died aboard Eastland than aboard RMS Titanic.

In a sad twist, the Eastland disaster might not have happened but for Titanic. In the wake of that tragedy, new federal legislation had been enacted mandating more lifeboats. The Act wasn’t in effect yet, but Eastland had been making changes in anticipation of the new law.

Unfortunately, extra lifeboats also made Eastland more top heavy, worsening pre-existing problems that it already had.

The day had started off on a festive note: Five excursion vessels were hired to carry thousands of Western Electric employees and their families across Lake Michigan. Once on the other side, they would enjoy a fun-packed day, including a picnic and an amusement park. Attendees were excited! Many had woken up early and were already boarding Eastland by 6:30 a.m.

The first signs of trouble were soon spotted: Eastland began listing first to starboard, then to port. The ship was briefly righted, but began rocking again as the passenger count climbed higher and higher. By 7:20 a.m., the ship was at full capacity with about 2,500 people aboard. Then disaster struck.

The ship had tilted sharply. A piano slid down the promenade deck. A refrigerator fell over. Dishes began falling off shelves. Water began pouring into portholes. People panicked, and some on the starboard side (next to the wharf) began jumping off. Unfortunately, their actions worsened Eastland’s list toward port.

The ship had taken as much abuse as it could: It quietly rolled over into the Chicago River just before 7:30 a.m., coming to rest on its side in 20 feet of water. Some passengers were trapped inside. Others scrambled onto the side of the ship. Hundreds fell into the water.

“When the boat toppled on its side,” one Chicago Herald reporter wrote, “those on the upper deck were hurled off like so many ants being brushed from a table. In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks.”

Horrified bystanders began to throw flotation devices into the river. Some onlookers jumped in, hoping to help. At least reportedly, one man had been standing near the river’s edge, contemplating suicide. Instead, he jumped in and began saving people.

One Western Electric nurse was nearby and raced to the wharf. “A few [survivors] were swimming,” she would recall, “the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything they could reach—at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all.” She began caring for the wounded, but she also decided that those with minor injuries were adding to the confusion. She sent them home.

“I would simply go out into the street,” she later described, “stop the first automobile that came along, load it up with people, and tell the owner or driver where to take them. And not one driver said ‘no’ or seemed anything but anxious to help out.”

Recovery efforts lasted for hours, but it was too late. Titanic had lost 829 passengers in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, but now Eastland would lose 844 just feet away from a wharf.

Primary Sources: