Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Eastland Disaster

Eastland Disaster site 2

While taking one of my lunch-time strolls in downtown Chicago a few weeks ago, I came across the plaque commemorating the Eastland Disaster. It sits along the Chicago River at Wacker Drive and the LaSalle Street bridge.

Eastland Disaster plaque

All my life, I heard stories of the Great Chicago Fire. But I never even heard about the tragic story of the sinking of the Eastland until I was an adult. I bet most Chicagoans still haven't heard about this tragedy.

SS Eastland docked

The S.S. Eastland was built in 1902. It cruised the Chicago area and the Great Lakes as a tourist ship.

1904 image of Eastland where disaster occured

On July 24, 1915, the Eastland docked in its usual place between the LaSalle Street and Clark Street bridges on the south side of the Chicago River. There, over 2500 employees of the Western Electric Company plant of Cicero, Illinois and their family members boarded the ship for a company-sponsored picnic cruise to Michigan City, Indiana. The ship had design flaws, making it top-heavy. Soon after boarding and before the ship could even leave the dock, it tipped over and sank into the 20-ft. waters.

Eastland Disaster panorama

Chicago police and firefighters quickly rushed to the scene and began rescue efforts.

This is how the site looks today...

Disaster site, looking east

... and how the same view looked on that tragic day.

Eastland on its side

Holes were quickly cut into the hull of the ship to pull people out:

Rescuers on overturned hull

Divers were sent into the waters when the rescue effort became a recovery effort.

Diving to recover the bodies

The Reid Murdoch building on the north side of the river still stands today. This central food-processing plant became the staging area for emergency responders during the rescue.

Across the River

The Reid Murdoch building as the the disaster was unfolding:

The Eastland & Reid, Murdoch & Co. building

Temporary morgues were set up in several nearby buildings. People waited in long lines to come to identify the bodies:

Waiting to identify the victims

Looking west along the river today...

Disaster site, looking west

... and the same view a few weeks after the disaster. Here you can see the efforts being made to raise the ship upright.

The Eastland being righted

After being righted and towed away from the scene, The Eastland was sold to the US Navy, repaired and retooled as a gunboat, renamed The USS Wilmette, and finally dismantled after WWII.

Reid, Murdoch & Co. building

In all, approximately 845 people lost their lives that day, making it the 3rd worst ship disaster in U.S. history and the largest loss of life in the United States from a single event during the 20th century. 22 entire families were completely wiped out.

Eastland Disaster site

Why was this incident all but forgotten? Was the event just too tragic and painful to remember? The first plaque was erected in 1989. After being vandalized and finally stolen in 2000, a new plaque was commissioned and erected in 2003.

To learn more about the Eastland Disaster, visit these informative links:

The Eastland Disaster, a wonderful YouTube video. Very well done.

The Sinking of the Eastland book

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Blogger Terry @ La Bella Vie said...

Oh my this was such a great historical post! I had no idea such a tragic event like this ever happenend!
Thank you for all your great research on this!

September 8, 2010 at 8:37 PM  
Blogger Jeff K said...

Great post, Pam! I had never heard of that before. Very strange that it has been forgotten.

September 8, 2010 at 9:13 PM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Terry-

I like learning about history, and it amazes me how such a thing can be almost totally forgotten. I thought about not posting it on my blog, thinking it might bring people down. But it should be known and remembered. I'm glad you found it interesting!


September 8, 2010 at 10:35 PM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Jeff-

See, you're from the area and hadn't heard about this either! Very weird, isn't it...


September 8, 2010 at 10:37 PM  
Blogger The Dusty Victorian said...

Very interesting post Pam, like all of your posts.

I would bet that there were I higher percentage of women who died on this tragic event due to their heavy dresses and corsets pulling them down.

September 11, 2010 at 7:50 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Anyes-

I don't know the statistics, but I do know a lot of women and children died. A lot of people were trapped in the lower portion of the ship. But your theory is a good one, and probably had something to do with the deaths of the women.


September 11, 2010 at 9:14 AM  
Blogger Rose ~Victorian Rose ~ said...

SMALL WORLD.....My sister called me the other day...and asked me if I had any pictures of our Grandfather in his uniform , who was a CHicago police officer back in the day of THIS very disaster....he helped with the recovery my sister told me...she is about 6 years older than myself.
I never remember my grandfather talking about this...maybe it was too painful to talk about, his children were all young at that time as I recall.
That must have been terrible for everyone many from one Company...gone at once.
I never knew the details of it before this.
SO much History in Chicago. It has it's reputation...but I still love to claim it as my "home town".


September 16, 2010 at 4:26 AM  
Blogger Rose ~Victorian Rose ~ said...

P.S. My sister ( who still lives up in the Chicago area) was contributing my Greandfathers photo for this museum (?) I think she told me...or whatever it was they were collecting information for...from anyone who knew anyone involved with the disaster in anyway.

** I ALWAYS love looking at your blog site...just love the graphics you have here.


September 16, 2010 at 4:31 AM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Rose,

Yes, there is a group that I think is putting things together for a small museum or memorial about the Eastland Disaster. It's so interesting that your grandfather was part of the recovery effort. I can see why he never mentioned it much to you kids... it's not something many people wanted to talk about.


September 16, 2010 at 7:03 AM  
Blogger La Petite Gallery said...

Thyis was so very interesting. Gee I can not believe 800 people on board and so close to shore.
This was a fab post. Thanks yvonne

September 28, 2010 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Yvonne-

It must have been devastating to be around back then. Imagine being one of the survivors. They must have been haunted the rest of their lives.


October 1, 2010 at 7:11 AM  

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