“You can’t imagine the full horror of it”

It was a festive, joyous atmosphere at the Clark Street docks on the south bank of the Chicago River on the morning of July 24, 1915, as a group of employees and families from the Western Electric Company in Joliet prepared to board the steamship Eastland for an excursion across the lake to Michigan City, Indiana. A band played lively music from the dock and passengers looked forward to a day of fun and relaxation.

In such surroundings it was hard to imagine that the assembly was just minutes away from the worst disaster in Illinois history.

Eastland had started off with a bad reputation as an unstable ship; nearly capsizing in 1904 and having another close call in 1906; but the ship’s owners had made adjustments which they believed would render the vessel safe for large groups. They had even added more lifeboats to the deck following the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier. The added lifeboats theoretically made the ship safer, but they also allowed the ship to carry even more passengers.

In all, there were five ships chartered for the voyage across the lake that morning, carrying around 7000 people to the picnic, a company tradition now in its fifth year. But the 275-foot long Eastland, with her twin smokestacks, was the star. The “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes,” as she was known, Eastland had been in service for just over a dozen years.

Even in the light rainfall, passengers began boarding around 6:30 a.m., and it wasn’t long before something seemed to be not quite right. The ship began swaying side to side much more than was normal while alongside the dock. Detecting a list to the starboard side, crew members began counter-flooding, letting in water to ballast tanks on the opposite side of the ship in order to restore some balance. Within minutes balance was restored, but then the ship began listing to the port side.

In spite of this troubling development, the boarding of passengers continued. By 7:10 there were 2500 people on board, full capacity for the swaying ship. Each had paid $1 for their ticket, unless they had taken advantage of a discount and purchased their ticket early for 75 cents. One prospective passenger who arrived late and was denied a chance to board the packed steamer was a young employee of Western Electric named George Halas.

Just after 7:25 the ship’s crew began preparing to depart the city for the company picnic in Michigan City. Excited passengers moved to the ship’s rail to wave goodbye to friends and family on the dock below.

It was at this moment that disaster struck.

The shifting of most of the passengers to one side of the already unstable ship caused a fatal imbalance in the weight aboard. Eastland began to list, slowly at first, then dramatically faster. Captain Harry Pedersen activated the ship’s alarm, but by then the danger was apparent to all.

Dishes fell off shelves and shattered on the deck, a piano broke free and slid across the ship, a refrigerator fell over. Panic suddenly ripped through the crowd on deck as the ship swung over by 45 degrees. At 7:30 a.m., Eastland capsized and sank into the mud of the Chicago River just 12 feet from shore.

“I shall never be able to forget what I saw,” recalled survivor Helen Repa. “People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a little raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything they could reach – at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all.”

The devastation was immediate. Trapped below deck in darkened cabins suddenly turned upside down, hundreds, including 22 whole families, drowned. Others who fell from the tilting deck were crushed as the ship rolled over. The dead included 58 infants and children.

Rescuers raced into action, pulling survivors from the 20-feet of water and up onto the dock. Police and fire crews arrived within minutes, as did the crews of nearby ships, but for many their efforts were too late.

“You can’t imagine the full horror of it,” rescuer Joseph Kuhlman said later. “I have never read nor seen such a sight.”

The nearby tugboat Kenosha, which was already secured to Eastland to help move the steamer out into the lake, was now quickly lashed to the wharf alongside Eastland in order to help escaping passengers reach the dock. The crew of the nearby steamer Theodore Roosevelt, also chartered for the excursion, began throwing their own life preservers to the victims struggling in the water, while the ship’s lifeboats were lowered to render assistance. These efforts succeeded in rescuing some of the passengers, but were largely for naught.

In a matter of minutes, 844 people had been killed, a death toll almost as high as the Chicago Fire and the Iroquois Theater tragedy combined. It was the worst loss of life of any disaster in Illinois’ history.

Western Electric and the American Red Cross quickly moved into comfort the survivors and those who had lost loved ones. Illinoisans from all walks of life came together to help in any way they could. Stores alongside the wharf provided coffee and blankets to shivering survivors as they were pulled from the water. The nearby Reid, Murdoch and Company basement became a temporary morgue.

Investigations were immediately convened, but they ultimately found that the crew – who had mostly survived – had not acted improperly and that there was nothing with which to charge the owners since the ship had met all the regulations and passed all the inspections. Many culprits were blamed for the sinking: an insufficient ballast system, a poor design that made the narrow ship unsteady, even the extra lifeboats which were blamed for making the ship top-heavy.

Regardless of its shortcomings, the ship’s owners were eager to get the ship out of the mud. It was raised barely three weeks later. With America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, the U.S. Navy needed training ships, and Eastland’s owners were happy to offer their ship. It was purchased by the Navy and rechristened USS Wilmette, going on to a successful career as a training ship on the Great Lakes until 1945.

In 1998 the Eastland Disaster Historical Society was formed by the granddaughters of an Eastland survivor to “create lasting legacies for the victims, survivors, heroes and anyone affected by the tragedy.”

Through their efforts, the history of the disaster is recalled more than a century later. The society combined with students from the Illinois Math and Science Academy and the city and state historical societies to post a marker near the site of the sinking.

It commemorates the 844 lives lost that morning in the worst disaster in Illinois history.