On July 24, 1914, some 2,500 passengers and crew crowded aboard the S.S. Eastland. The boat capsized while still docked in the Chicago River.
The S.S. Eastland tipped over in the Chicago River only three years after the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. With a death toll of 844 passengers, the disaster took half as many lives as that famous shipwreck, but it hasn’t received nearly half the attention.
On July 24, 1915, more than 2,500 employees of the Western Electric Company in Cicero — many of them Czech immigrants — piled onto the Eastland for a picnic excursion to Michigan City. The overloaded boat listed to port, then finally tilted over entirely.
It was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Great Lakes, but today, it is only memorialized by a historical marker at the corner of LaSalle and Wacker. In the words of Jay Bonansinga, author of The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy, the ill-fated boat was “a blue-collar Titanic.”
The Eastland’s fatal flaw was that it had been designed like a cargo ship, which carries its weight in lower holds, not like a passenger ship. Its ballast system was not nimble enough to balance a top-heavy load.
In spite of that, the ship’s owner, the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company, never paid a price for the loss of life. The company’s officers fled to Michigan to avoid a federal charge of operating an unsafe ship. They avoided extradition to Illinois with the help of defense attorney Clarence Darrow and were acquitted by a judge in Grand Rapids. Had they been extradited to Chicago, says Coppola, it would have been “a much more hostile trial” in front of a much more hostile judge: jurist Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who would later become the first Commissioner of Baseball.
“These were wealthy shipowners who had almost no experience owning a steamship,” Coppola says. “To me, the damning point is that they knew this was not a perfect steamship, but they thought putting 2500 passengers on board was an acceptable risk.