Lost to the Lake:

The S.S. Eastland Disaster

Postcard of the SS Eastland in 1907

For over 300 years, the waters of Lake Michigan have claimed countless ships. Most were lost to violent storms and inclement weather, especially in the always dangerous month of November. But some vessels went down without reaching open water. One such vessel was the passenger ship S. S. Eastland, renowned for being the site of the greatest loss of life on the Great Lakes.

Commissioned by the Michigan Steamship Company in 1902, the ship was constructed by the Jenks Ship Building Company. The Eastland was built specifically to ply the route between South Haven and Chicago and its construction competed with that of the steamer City of South Haven. A contest held to name the vessel was won by Mrs. David Reid of South Haven, Michigan who took home a season pass on the ship along with $10.

Although christened with its new name in May 1903, the S. S. Eastland did not begin regular passenger service until later that year. In July 1903, the ship became open for inspection to the public who flocked on board. The sudden number of people, particularly on the upper decks, caused the Eastland to list so severely that water came in through the gangways where passengers and freight would be brought aboard. The ship was obviously top-heavy and this problem had to dealt with quickly. But a month later, another account of listing was reported which led many to wonder if that critical design flaw had been corrected.

It wasn’t a successful first sailing season for the S. S. Eastland. In August , the ship sustained damage when it backed into a tugboat. Then while en route to South Haven, the ship firemen were angered when they didn’t receive their expected potatoes at a meal. Because of this, they refused to return to the boiler room and stoke the fire. After being arrested at gunpoint on board, the six men were jailed for mutiny. And for his part in the Eastland mutiny, the ship’s commander, Captain Pereue, was replaced.

Nicknamed the ‘Speed Queen of the Great Lakes’, the Eastland was sold to the Michigan Transportation Company in 1905. Ownership of the vessel would continue to change hands several times. Mishaps also seemed to occur on a regular basis. In July 1904, while carrying 3000 passengers to Chicago, the Eastland listed dangerously both to port and to starboard, but managed to avert disaster. The ship’s carrying capacity was subsequently reduced to 2800 passengers. Later that fall, the Eastland was put into dry dock to address the ship’s tendency to scrape the bottom of the shoreline near South Haven.

The SS Eastland one year before the disaster - 1914

On August 12, 1905, the cross-harbor ferry Phylida had her bow crushed when she ran under the Eastland’s stern while transporting a dozen passengers in South Haven Harbor. Since the Eastland was as large as an ocean liner, it was never in any danger, but the Phylida quickly sank. All the passengers and crew of the Phylida were rescued, some of them suffering from severe burns. During the summer of 1906, the Eastland listed again as it transported 2500 passengers, and her carrying capacity was reduced to 2400. But in July 1912, the Eastland was reported as having once more listed to port and then to starboard while carrying passengers.

In 1915, the LaFollette Seaman’s Act was passed. Created as a response to the Titanic not carrying sufficient lifeboats, the Seaman’s Act mandated that lifeboat space would no longer depend on gross tonnage, but rather on how many passengers were on board. However adding extra weight to the ship put top-heavy vessels like the Eastland at greater risk of listing. In fact, the Senate Commerce Committee was cautioned at the time that placing additional lifeboats and life rafts on the top decks of Great Lakes ships would make them dangerously unstable. This was a warning that the Senate Committee and the Eastland should have heeded.

It was on July 24, 1915 however that the Eastland became known as one of the worst maritime disasters on the Great Lakes. On that cool Saturday morning in Chicago, the Eastland and two other steamers were waiting to take on passengers bound for an annual company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. For many of the employees of Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works, this would be the only holiday they would enjoy all year. A large number of these employees from the 200-acre plant in Cicero, Illinois were Czech Bohemian immigrants. As thousands of employees thronged along the river, the mood was festive. And while three ships would transport them across Lake Michigan to the picnic grounds in Indiana, the Eastland was slated to be the first ship boarded.

That morning the Eastland was docked between LaSalle and Clark Streets on the Chicago River. As soon as passengers began boarding, Captain Harry Pedersen and his crew noticed that the ship was listing to port even though most passengers were gathered along the starboard. Attempts were made to right the vessel but stability seemed uncertain. At 7:10am, the ship reached its maximum carrying capacity of 2572 passengers and the gangplank was pulled in.

As the captain made preparations to depart at 7:21am, the crew continued to let water into the ship’s ballast tanks in an attempt to stabilize the vessel. At 7:23am, water began to pour in through the port gangways. Within minutes, the ship was seriously listing but most passengers seemed unaware of the danger. Many were below deck dancing to the band, while passengers on the upper decks were actually seen moving to port side. By 7:27am, the ship listed so badly that passengers found it too difficult to dance so the orchestra musicians started to play ragtime instead to keep everyone entertained.

The SS Eastland lying on its side in the Chicago River after capsizing - 1915

Just one minute later -- 7:28am -- panic set in. Dishes crashed off shelves, a sliding piano almost crushed two passengers, and the band stopped playing as water poured through portholes and gangways. In the next two minutes, the ship completely rolled over on its side, settling on the shallow river bottom that lay 20 feet below. Passengers below deck now found themselves trapped as water gushed in and heavy furniture careened wildly. Men, women and children threw themselves into the river, but others were trapped between decks, or were crushed by the ship’s furniture and equipment. The lifeboats and life jackets were of no use since the ship had capsized too quickly to access them.

Survivors being shuttled ashore via tugboat from People working to pull the living and the dead from the capsized SS Eastland - 1915

Bystanders on the pier rushed to help those who had been thrown into the river, while a tugboat rescued passengers clinging to the overturned hull of the ship. An eyewitness to the disaster wrote: “I shall never be able to forget what I saw. 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 life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything that 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 them all.”

People working to pull the living and the dead from the hull of the capsized SS Eastland - 1915

Rescue workers climbed onto the overturned hull and tried to break through the Eastland’s thick plating as screams were heard from within. When the inside of the ship was finally breached, however, few were found alive. Divers worked for days to retrieve all of the bodies from the river. So great was the loss of life that temporary morgues had to be set up in nearby buildings. (An interesting piece of Chicago trivia: one of the buildings along the river that served as a makeshift morgue is now called Harpo Studios, home to The Oprah Winfrey Show).

Rescuers standing atop the hull of the capsized SS Eastland - 1915

Because the annual Western Electric picnic was a family event, some bodies were never identified since the entire family had perished in the tragedy. The final death toll was 844: 82 men, 472 women, 290 children. Only four crew members were lost, an indication that they were aware of just how serious the situation was and knew exactly where not to go when the ship began to capsize.

Photo of a body being carried away from the capsized Eastland - 1915

Although angry citizens tried to attack the ship’s captain and first mate, an inquiry cleared the crew and the ship owners of any criminal charges. Three months after the Eastland capsized, its remains were brought to the surface and bought by the Naval Reserve in Illinois. Once restored, the Eastland was recommissioned as the USS Wilmette. It served the Navy as a training gunship on the Great Lakes for 32 years.

Photo of the USS Wilmette (ex-SS Eastland) 1932
USS Wilmette - 1932

To commemorate the disaster, a historical marker was dedicated on June 4, 1989 along the Chicago River. A permanent outdoor exhibit is also being planned at the exact location of the Eastland capsizing.

The 1915 tragedy of the S. S. Eastland remains the greatest loss of life from one ship on the Great Lakes. Indeed, it may be the highest death toll of any event occurring in the continental United States in the 20th century. (The 1906 San Francisco earthquake has wildly differing mortality figures, so it is difficult to ascertain exact loss of life from that disaster.) Even now, it is unsettling to realize that it wasn’t a white squall, treacherous waves or a legendary storm of November that was responsible for so many deaths. This time it wasn’t the lake that was responsible for the ship going down, but the flaws of the ship itself.

---Sharon Pisacreta, December 2011

Resources for the S. S. Eastland:

The Fall of the Eastland at Alan Bellows' website
The Eastland Disaster Historical Society
The Eastland Memorial Society
The SS Eastland Wikipedia Page
Oprah's connection to the SS Eastland

Lost Passenger Steamships of Lake Michigan, Ted St. Mane, The History Press, 2010.
Lake Michigan Shipwrecks: South Haven to Grand Haven, Kit Lane, Pavilion Press, July 1997.
The Sinking Of The Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy, Jay Bonansinga, Citadel, 2004.
The Eastland Disaster (Images of America), Ted Wachholz, Arcadia Publishing, 2005.