The SS Eastland was a passenger steamship based in Chicago, used for tours of the inland waterways and Great Lakes areas around the city. Eastland’s design was top heavy and made her subject to listing, a problem that plagued the ship from her christening in 1903. Embarking passengers would crowd along the rail to wave goodbye, several times having to be herded across the decks to reduce the list. Once, she even started to take on water at the main gangplank.
Special passenger restrictions were imposed on Eastland, which seemed to help until 1914, when Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster.
The ironic part is that the weight of additional lifeboats is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland to disaster.
It was July 24, 1915, when Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take Western Electric employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Eastland was docked on the south bank of the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle, near the site of the present day Merchandise Mart. Passengers began boarding around 6:30am. By 7:10 the ship had reached its full capacity of 2,572 passengers.
A number of passengers went below decks to get out of the chill, but hundreds stayed out on the upper decks, excited about the day ahead. The port side list away from the dock, had set in early in the boarding process, and crew members began to pump water into the starboard ballast tanks to stabilize the ship. Something interesting must have happened on the river at 7:28, causing a number of passengers to rush to the port side rail.
Novelist Jack Woodford witnessed what happened next, describing it in his autobiography: “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”. Hundreds were trapped below decks, others were crushed under heavy bookcases, pianos and tables.
Another vessel, the Kenosha, pulled alongside almost immediately. Several passengers were able to jump directly onto her decks, others were rescued at the wharf, only 20′ away. Hundreds were beyond saving.
Temporary morgues were set up in area buildings for the identification of the dead; including what is now the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Studios, and the location of the Chicago Hard Rock Cafe.
Then-20-year-old George Halas was scheduled to be on the Eastland, but he was late and showed up after the capsize. 844 passengers and four crew members lost their lives in the disaster, but Eastland herself would have a second life. She was raised from the bottom, converted to a gun boat, and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Reserve, re-christened USS Wilmette.
Wilmette saw no combat service in WWI, though she was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the US after WWI. Wilmette’s guns were manned by Gunner’s Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in WWI, and Gunner’s Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the war.
Wilmette would serve once again as a training ship in WWII, and sold for scrap on Halloween day, 1946.