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.
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.
The S.S. Eastland was built in 1902. It cruised the Chicago area and the Great Lakes as a tourist ship.
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.
Chicago police and firefighters quickly rushed to the scene and began rescue efforts.
This is how the site looks today...
... and how the same view looked on that tragic day.
Holes were quickly cut into the hull of the ship to pull people out:
Divers were sent into the waters when the rescue effort became a recovery effort.
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.
The Reid Murdoch building as the the disaster was unfolding:
Temporary morgues were set up in several nearby buildings. People waited in long lines to come to identify the bodies:
Looking west along the river today...
... and the same view a few weeks after the disaster. Here you can see the efforts being made to raise the ship upright.
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.
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.