The 'Eastland' disaster

June 19, 2012

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Even at its widest part, the Chicago River is not much of a river. You can walk across one of the downtown bridges in less than a minute. The water here is barely 20 feet deep. Calm, peaceful and not very dangerous.

July 24, 1915 was a Saturday. That morning the steamship Eastland was moored at the south bank of the river, just west of the Clark Street Bridge. The ship was scheduled to depart for a cruise to Michigan City. Most of the 2,500 passengers were employees at the Western Electric plant in Cicero, on their way to a company picnic.

Boarding began at 6:30 a.m. The ship began to list to starboard. This wasn’t unusual, and the crew took measures to balance it.  

Shortly before 7:30, the Eastland cast off. After an hour of sways and straightening, the ship was now listing toward port—in this case, away from the dock. During the next few minutes the list continued. Finally, the ship simply rolled over onto its side.

The whole thing happened so quickly. There wasn’t time to grab life jackets, or get into the lifeboats. Many of the passengers had gone below deck to get out of the cool morning drizzle, and were trapped.

The Eastland settled into the mud at the bottom of the river. The hull jutted out above the water line. The ship was barely 20 feet from the dock.

Help was immediately on the scene. Some passengers had made their way to the hull of the overturned ship and jumped off into rescue boats. Others were plucked out of the river. Meanwhile, firemen clambered atop the wreck and began cutting through the hull, hoping to free those trapped below.

A total of 848 people died. Among the dead, 22 families were entirely wiped out. The Eastland sinking was the single deadliest disaster in Chicago history.

Someone had to take the blame. Both state and federal investigations were launched. Though the captain and some others were indicted under various charges, the cases were never brought to trial.

The Eastland itself was raised, sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve, and became a training ship called the Wilmette. It was scrapped in 1947.

Nobody really knows what caused the Eastland to capsize. One story is that the passengers suddenly rushed to one side of the deck to look at something on shore, and that caused the tipping.

Most likely, the original design and later modifications to the Eastland had simply made it top-heavy. And three weeks before the tragedy, the ship had added three lifeboats and six life rafts to its upper deck. This last 12 tons of weight may have been just too much.

So in the end, we might say the Eastland was victim of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Those new lifeboats and life rafts had been put on board because of new federal safety regulations—which had been enacted after the sinking of the Titanic.