Today in 1915, the S.S. Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River while still tied to a nearby wharf. The disaster was the worst maritime accident to occur in the continental United States during the 20th century, yet very few people are familiar with what happened. What's more, a review of the ship, her construction and her later modifications prove that the accident was completely avoidable.
The Eastland was commissioned in 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company. She was built to carry fruit and passengers between South Haven, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois. Since the harbor at South Haven was shallow, the Eastland was designed to draw only 12 feet of water when loaded to capacity. She was also designed to be fast, a fact that resulted in a narrow, long hull. Her shallow draft and narrow beam made her top-heavy from the start. To make matters worse, her design was changed so that she was sixty feet shorter than planned, making her less buoyant. Finally, an additional deck was added, making the ship even more top-heavy.
Over the years of her operation, Eastland had several close calls resulting from her poor design. During the first three years she was in operation, passengers crowding to one side of the ship caused her to list so badly that the gangplanks went under and water rushed onboard. The Eastland had several ballast tanks installed which could be filled with water to balance the craft, but these were slow-acting and there were no gauges to tell the operator how much water had been pumped into the tanks. If the tanks were left only half full, which was the case most of the time, the water would shift back and forth, a motion which also affected the stability of the ship.
The final straw for Eastland's stability came early in 1915 with the implementation of the Seaman's Act, which required all US-flagged ships to carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The failure to have a complete set of lifeboats had doomed more than a thousand people on the Titanic in 1912, the disaster which spawned the act. On the Eastland, just the opposite occurred: the additional lifeboats on the top deck of the ship made her even more unstable. It was not a question of if the Eastland would capsize, but when.
On July 24, 1915, Eastland and two other local ships were hired to take employees of the Western Electric Company from Chicago to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Passengers began boarding around 6:30 AM as the Eastland sat docked on the Chicago River. By 7:10, the ship had reached its capacity of 2,500 passengers and was developing a list to port, which the crew attempted to stabilize by admitting water to the ballast tanks. By 7:28, the Eastland began to roll over, coming to rest on its side in 20 feet of water only 20 feet from the wharf, on the south bank of the river between Clark and LaSalle Streets. One of the other cruise ships pulled up along side and tried to give people a means of escape, but many on board were trapped by collapsing bulkheads and falling furniture. The disaster left witnesses stunned. Here, in downtown Chicago, the worst maritime disaster most people had ever seen was taking place only 20 feet from the safety of dry land.
Many onlookers risked their lives to save people, including Johnny Benson, who was credited with saving between 50 and 100 people. Despite his bravery and the bravery of hundreds of other Chicagoans that morning, not everyone could be saved. When all was said and done, 845 men, woman and children lost their lives, including four crew members. The Second Illinois Regiment Armory was used as a makeshift morgue where grieving families could come and claim the bodies of their loved ones. It would be decades before a full study of the disaster took place.
The Eastland was raised in October, 1915 and began a second life as a gunboat for the Navy. She was commissioned as the USS Wilmette in 1918 and was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago. She served as a training ship for hundreds of sailors over the next three decades. During the Second World War she helped trained armed guard crews, the Navy sailors who manned the guns on civilian merchantmen traveling the hazardous waters of the North Atlantic. She was decommissioned immediately after the end of the war, sold for scrap and was demolished in 1947.