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The Day The Eastland Sank

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

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Eastland Disaster – Chicago, July 24, - 8 A.M.
From the Land ~ Sea Discovery Group archives
July 24, 1915 was a warm sunny day. There was gay chattering and singing among the through of 2500 men, women and children about to set off for a gay outing. But in a few minutes, their outing turned in to the greatest disaster in the history of Chicago – with 812 lives lost.

The excursion steamer Eastland overturned in the Chicago River with on a few yards of the dock just west of Clark Street.

The huge mass of passengers, employees of the Western Electric Co., with their wives and children, was crowding onto the vessel as early as 7 AM for the trip to Michigan City, Indiana and a huge picnic in the Indiana Dunes.

The First hint of disaster; there was no room for dancing on the crowded boat, but a tiny band sparked by a mandolin player and a fiddler, tinkled ragtime tunes. The bulk of the passengers had crowded to the port side of the vessel to get a better view as they began the voyage.

Captain Harry Pederson gave orders to cast off and the first wobbly hint of disaster came. The Eastland listed to port, leaned toward the north side of the river, then righted itself.

But in the next second, the listing came again. The engineer opened the valve to the No. 2 tank on the starboard side in an effort to steady the vessel. The listing became even greater, and Capt Pederson was shouting; “All passengers to starboard.”

A scene of chaos; Deck chairs began to slide. An icebox in the bar fell over. The Eastland hung at about 25 to 30 degrees, the suddenly went completely over on her side. Water poured into a low open port, and then the ship sank.

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S.S. Eastland – Wells St. Bridge – Chicago River. Recovering bodies after disaster.
Some passengers on the starboard side managed to leap back to the dock. Even among those thrown into the water, many below deck were penned in and drowned, or crushed to death in the rush to escape. The stairway collapsed under the weight of so many feet.

Some of the imprisoned held on until holes were cut in the side of the boat that was still above the water. Joining the rescue work were tugs assembled for the sailing of the Western Electric flotilla, which included four vessels in addition to the Eastland.

They were joined by Coast Guard cutters, bridge-tender boats, launches, a fire department boat, and skiffs.

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Recovering bodies from the hull of the ill-fated Eastland. Shows three persons recovered from the hold.
Throngs view the dead; The Red Cross established a mass mortuary in the 2nd Regiment Armory at Washington and Curtis Streets, where at least 30,000 people came to view the recovered bodies for possible identification.

After the tragedy, charges were made that the Eastland was not seaworthy, and indictments were returned against members of her crew and officers of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co., owners of the ship. There were no convictions.

The Eastland continued here career when the US Navy raised her, reconditioned her, and changed her to the U.S.S. Wilmette for naval training service on the Great Lakes.

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Divers, whose untiring efforts aided greatly in the recovery of the bodies from the hull of the ill-fated Eastland.
Her career did come to an end in 1946 when she was sold for $2500 to a scrap iron firm and dismantled forever.

The above article is as reported in the Chicago American newspaper, “Way Back When” column. There are many interesting sites on the Internet that explain this terrible disaster in far more detail and you are encouraged to check them out.

Eastland Disaster Historical Society
Eastland Disaster of 1915

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