Following the “unsinkable” Titanic disaster of 1912, thirteen countries including Great Britain and the United States gathered to discuss implementation of life-saving measures at sea, such as radio communications, safety of navigation and ice patrol. Among other measures, the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty signed in January 1914 mandated that sufficient lifeboats be provided for every passenger and crew member on board, and that all on board be instructed on their use.
Anyone who’s been on a cruise vacation, knows what that sounds like.
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 made her top heavy from the beginning, and subject to listing. Embarking passengers would crowd along the rail to wave goodbye, several times having to be herded across the decks to reduce the list. One time, Eastland even began to take on water at the main gangplank.
Special passenger restrictions specifically imposed on Eastland helped the problem until 1914, when the weight of additional lifeboats brought stability problems to a new level. Ironically, the additional weight of those lifeboats almost certainly doomed the steamship and 848 of her passengers and crew, to disaster.
On July 24, 1915, Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and 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 current site of the Merchandise Mart. Passengers began boarding around 6:30am. By 7:10 the ship had reached 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, set in early in the boarding process, when 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 the scene 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 identifying 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 United States following 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.