The Day the Eastland Sank While Docked Killing 850

The S.S. Eastland |

When the S.S. Eastland sank in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915, it was still tied to the dock. Reports of the events recount the distance from which one could hear the screaming.

The crew had just loaded the Eastland for a day trip across Lake Michigan. Instead, they (those who survived) would spend the day pulling some 850 bodies from the water.

Only three years after the sinking of the Titanic, the Eastland disaster took more lives in less time. Unlike the Titanic disaster, this didn’t take place out at sea in freezing water. Most of the passengers were not far from their homes.

It was one of the greatest inland waterway tragedies, if not the most heinous on record.

What’s worse, it was avoidable.

Lifeboats for all

When the Titanic went down, it was a slow process. Of those who died, it was a matter of freezing cold water, panic, and more importantly, not enough lifeboats.

At the time, they knew Titanic was shy of enough lifeboats. She was unsinkable, though. That was how they sold her. Then, she sank.

The usual response from lawmakers was (still is?) to overreact. If people died on one ship because there weren’t enough lifeboats for every passenger, then by heck, every boat would have enough going forward.

Herein we find a good example of folly in bureaucracy. Not every boat was fit for that many lifeboats.

At the turn of the century, lifeboats were not the inflatable deals we have today. Adding to that, ship building techniques were expanding fast. Variances in designs created anomalies, like the high center of gravity found in the Eastland.

When lifeboats-for-all the bill came to the table, those who knew better warned that some shallow draft boats would “turn turtle,” meaning they would roll over from too much top weight.

The S.S. Eastland

Built in 1902, the Eastland would carry 500 people on Lake Michigan. It had no keel, which was not out of the ordinary. This was a lake boat, not an ocean liner.

Adding to the instability, Eastland was top-heavy. That wasn’t a big deal in 1902. They righted her with ballasts, which filled with water. In general, as was said of the ship at that time, Eastland ran steadily once she was underway.

“It was said of her that she behaved like a bicycle,” wrote George W. Hilton, transportation historian, and economist. ”…unstable when loading or unloading but stable when under way.”

That day in 1915 wasn’t the first time Eastland threatened to turn turtle. Once, in 1904, she listed hard with 3,000 aboard. (Yes, 2,500 over capacity.) In 1906, the same thing happened with 2,530 passengers aboard.

Then, in March 1915, President Wilson signed into action the bill about lifeboats. All boats would carry enough lifeboats to save at least 75 percent of the passengers.

That Day

It was early, like 7:00 in the morning. The crew was to load up Eastland with about 2,500 passengers.

The Eastland, along with several other boats, was to cart 7,000 of the employees of the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works factory to the southeast corner of Lake Michigan.

Eastland took the first of the passengers, between 7:00 am and 7:18, they loaded them with the last of the crew, then pulled up the gangplanks. They’d planned to be underway in a moment.

That day there was a drizzle, so many headed below deck to get out of the rain, especially families with children. Some passengers lingered on the top deck. Nobody, it seemed, noticed the ship listing away from the dock, to the port side of the boat.

By 7:23, the water began pouring into the engine room it was listing so badly. The crew, no strangers to this hoodoo boat, scurried up to safety.

Five minutes later, the boat listed so hard, a piano rolled across the floor of one deck and heavy items like refrigerators began falling over. Water streamed into every porthole.

Passengers on the top deck flung into the water, which was a nasty river back then. Parents and children screamed as heads went under and didn’t come back up.

By 7:30, Eastland had done as foretold, turned turtle. In 20 feet of water, it lay on its side.

The actual headcount was 844 dead, 15 more than Titanic, most under age 25. Even the Lusitania, sunk by torpedoes weeks before on the open ocean, lost only 785.

The people of Chicago woke that day to either screams or the terrible news of the tragedy. Lawsuits and liability claims would drag into the 1930s, some longer than the lives of the people accountable.

Beyond the loss of life, the insanity of this tragedy makes it one of the worst maritime disasters in history.

The only that came of it was that regulation of ship stabilization transferred to a new department, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. In time, all maritime laws fell under the management of the U.S. Coast Guard. These organizations were better equipped to manage decision-making based on data, not emotion.