At a pier on the Chicago River on 24 July 1915, as the passenger steamer SS Eastland prepared to embark across lake Michigan, chief engineer Joseph Erickson grew increasingly concerned about his ship’s demeanor. While the long line of passengers strolled up the gangplank, the engine room crew pumped water into the ballast tanks to keep the ship and its shifting load on an even keel. But the Eastland was being more persnickety than usual on that particular morning, seemingly intent on leaning a bit to one side or the other.

The hundreds of Western Electric employees on board the passenger liner were bound for the company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana, just across the lake. The annual event was typically filled with frolicking and festivity, so the ship was brimming with excited families and plentiful picnic baskets. When the vessel reached its capacity of 2,500, the gangplank was brought in and the ship’s orchestra sprang into action in the ballroom. Many passengers began dancing in spite of the crowded conditions, unconcerned with the slowly increasing slope of the dance floor.

Joseph Erickson had only been employed as the chief engineer for a few months, but he was familiar with the vessel’s history of similar incidents. The prior episodes of listing had always been resolved by shuffling ballast, so he saw little cause for concern; however the Eastland’s crew did not fully anticipate the effects of some recent modifications to their ship. The vessel’s owners had recently added some weight to the upper decks, including several additional life boats and a few dozen tons of deck-reinforcing concrete. Together these factors raised the steamer’s center of gravity considerably.

In the engine room, Erickson organized the effort to set the stubborn vessel upright. Fearing that the ship had somehow become entangled, he sent someone outside to check the hull for contact with the pier. But over the next few minutes the mighty steamer finally sat up straight as two of the starboard ballast tanks filled. With the situation seemingly resolved, Captain Harry Pedersen gave the order to begin preparations for departure. A baggage handler cast off one of the stern lines while a mass of passengers stood at the starboard rail waving goodbye to the people on the pier.

A painting of the Eastland (circa 1907)
A painting of the Eastland (circa 1907)

As the engines began to nudge the steamer forward, it once again slouched perceptibly towards its port side. The passengers traded humorous remarks regarding the dance floor’s gradually increasing slope while chairs slowly slid across the deck. However the mood became apprehensive when the engines were stopped, and the sound of beer bottles crashing from the counter tops echoed through the compartments. A troubled murmur erupted, but it was cut short by the whooping of the ship’s warning whistle. Apparently the struggling ship was starting to sip water from the river through her port gangways.

On the pier, the harbormaster instructed the ship’s second mate not to cast off any more lines until the seriously listing ship could be righted. The stern of the Eastland began to slowly swing away from the wharf, and the uneasy men and women aboard the vessel dug in their heels as the tilt increased to about thirty degrees.

The orchestra was belting out an upbeat ragtime tune as the engine room’s workers emerged on the deck and headed for the exits. Dishes spilled from the shelves and tables begin to slide across the deck. As the tilt reached an alarming degree, Captain Pederson on the top deck was heard to shout “For God’s sake, open up your gangway!” at a crew member below. Panicked passengers began to boil up from the lower decks carrying their children, and desperate men and women leaped from the sides of the ship into the river and onto the pier.

The orchestra’s merry music stalled suddenly, replaced by shouts of “Every man for himself!” and the sharp cracks of snapping mooring lines. As the water ingressed on the port side and the humans egressed on the starboard side, the redistribution of weight rapidly pushed the vessel to its tipping point, and at 7:28am the world inside the massive steamship Eastland suddenly went sideways.

Writer Jack Woodford watched the scene unfold from the shore:

“And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.”

Passengers on the top deck were thrown into the river, many of them pinned under the hull or swamped by the wake of the capsized ship. Inside, the passengers in the crowded compartments were tossed into heaps on the port bulkheads as furniture rained down on them. Some were crushed by rogue refrigerators, pianos, and equipment, and many others were pinned under piles of panicked people as the water came rushing in.

As the Eastland settled on its side in the mud of the shallow Chicago River, witnesses stood stunned for several moments. But within seconds, the bystanders on the docks began to throwing anything that would float into the water for the floundering victims. Some dove into the river and ferried people to safety while others stood at the water’s edge and lifted the disoriented, waterlogged victims onto the pier. A nearby tugboat immediately pulled alongside the Eastland, allowing the crowd of passengers standing on her overturned hull to leap on board.

Inside the skewed engine room, chief engineer Erickson found the controls to turn on the injectors before making his escape, bringing cold water into the boilers to reduce the likelihood of a boiler explosion. He then clambered his way up through an air duct and out a porthole, where the men standing outside pulled him to the safety of the ship’s exposed side.

An anonymous passenger gave her account to a news reporter after she was rescued:

“When boarding the boat we all remarked jestingly: ‘The boat is listing!’ Reaching the big dancing hall on the lower deck where many hundreds of excursionists were enjoying the music, we noticed that the floor was strongly tilted. Then a man cried: ‘All hurry to the other side, lest the boat tip!’ Even now we enjoyed rushing up the sharply inclined dance floor, when suddenly the mighty boat rolled to the opposite side, and all occupants were hurled into a helpless heap. In the dance hall the furniture, the tables and chairs, the heavy piano, the large icebox and counter of the tavern, crashed upon the poor victims, so that many were killed outright. Those who had been on deck were trapped deep down in the river, under twenty-three feet of water.”

“I was one of the few who came out of the water although I was imprisoned inside the dance hall. I could swim well and tried to rescue a little girl, but a man took hold of my arm and pleaded, ‘Lady, please save me!’ I screamed: ‘Let me go! I have all I can do to save myself and this child!’ Then the fellow pulled me and the child down to the bottom. I fought him off, and in the scuffle I lost hold of the poor child. Only five other girls and men were swimming within the dance hall. Luckily they found a ledge to which they now clung, and they called me to come and hold on. For half an hour we took this rest, but the suspense became unbearable. We screamed for help. Finally we were noticed and strong arms drew us through a porthole.”

"Tenderly removing from the hold a body in which a spark of life still lingers", a photo of the rescue later used as a postcard. The printers obscured the victim's face.
"Tenderly removing from the hold a body in which a spark of life still lingers", a photo of the rescue later used as a postcard. The printers obscured the victim's face.

Another anonymous eyewitness described the astonishing misery of the scene:

“I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything that 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.”

William Raphael was in a nearby building when the Eastland fell:

“I heard her flop over with a crash and a splash. I jumped out to the door and saw what had happened. I saw two women come bobbing up to the surface not far from the shore piling. I jumped in to grab them.”

“Some fat man, his face green with terror, was making for them, too. I got hold of the women and started to pull them out. The fat man held onto the women’s dresses, and I couldn’t swim with the whole load. I yelled at him, treading water as I fought. He wouldn’t let go.”

“I kicked him in the face and made him let go. I lost one of the women in the struggle, but I got the other woman to shore safely. All three of them might have been saved if that fellow hadn’t been scared into a frenzy. I am glad that I saved one, anyway.”

Clark R. Greene was a Western Electric employee who arrived during the pandemonium that followed:

“Although I do not know the exact time of arrival downtown I think that we arrived about five to ten minutes after the disaster. We could not get near the docks but stood in the street while people passed us who had been rescued and could walk. Most were in tears, some hysterical and one girl that I saw was actually crazed, she was soaking wet, hair hanging down, actually tearing her hair, and screaming at the top of her voice something about her sister. Others were being carried up town by ambulances, cars, patrols, etc. To add to the dismalness it started to drizzle. All the time people were arriving for the other boats and when someone with a megaphone announced ‘Western Electric picnic called off’ there was an audible murmur of disappointment since the awfulness of the disaster was not yet realized. Of course the narrowness of my escape was not very narrow but as narrow as I care to have it.”

Soon the capsized vessel was straddled by rescue workers who labored to carve holes in the Eastland’s hull while muffled screams could be heard from inside. By the time the torches chewed through the thick plating, however, most of the screams had quieted. Few of those inside the ship were found alive, but men entered the compartments nonetheless, searching desperately for signs of life.

Makeshift morgues were established in several of the surrounding buildings. It took days for the city divers to extract all of the bodies from all of the Eastland, and the corpses were laid out in rows for identification by family members. Many of the Western Electric employees had brought along their entire families to attend the company picnic festivities, resulting in a few instances where no family members survived to claim their remains. In all, 844 souls perished in the Eastland disaster, including 472 women, 290 children, and 82 men. Only four members of the ship’s crew were killed.

Churches and cemeteries in Chicago were quickly overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, so some mourners were compelled to hold combined funerals and to use freight trucks as improvised hearses. Many of the survivors endured a seemingly endless chain of their coworkers’ funerals in the weeks that followed. Each of them also required a series of typhoid fever inoculations due to the time they spent in the Chicago River.

Shortly thereafter, many of the Eastland crew were arrested and questioned in response to a public outcry for an explanation. As Captain Pedersen and his first mate were escorted to headquarters at the city hall, an angry mob tried to attack the two men. One of the crowd members managed to punch the Captain in the face before the police were able to intervene. During the investigation that followed, it was determined that the crew of the Eastland did nothing criminal before or during the disaster, nor was the accident a result of their actions. The US District Court of Appeals also found that the Eastland’s owners⁠— the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company⁠— were not liable for any of the deaths resulting from the Eastland disaster. While a flurry of civil actions continued afterward, no further criminal suits were filed.

Fireman Leonard E. Olson carries the body of a child pulled from the water.
Fireman Leonard E. Olson carries the body of a child pulled from the water.

The Eastland’s slow-reacting ballast tanks certainly contributed to its demise, but capsizing was ultimately blamed on the Eastland’s poor weight distribution. In the wake of the Titanic disaster of 1912, the US federal government had enacted the LaFollette’s Seaman’s Act which stipulated that seagoing vessels must have an adequate number lifeboats on the deck. Ironically, by complying with this regulation the Eastland’s owners had piled an additional 10-14 tons onto their already top-heavy ship, contributing to a higher center of gravity and reduced stability.

In October 1915⁠— three months after its tragic spill into the river⁠— the remains of the Eastland were raised and sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve. The Navy restored the vessel to seaworthiness, and recommissioned it as the USS Wilmette. It served as a training gunship on the Great Lakes for another thirty-two years until it was sold for scrap in 1947.

The Eastland disaster was one of the deadliest accidents to occur in the US in the entire twentieth century, yet its story remains mired in obscurity. Some blame this oversight on the brilliant whitewashing campaign undertaken by the ship’s owners in the months after the accident, whereas others suspect that history makes little room for working-class tragedies. Indeed, a week after the disaster a millionaire heiress in Michigan was married, and the press coverage of her wedding garnered more attention than the Eastland did. At times, society itself seems alarmingly top-heavy and precarious. Perhaps a few lifeboats would help.