At around 6 a.m. on July 24, 1915, as 2500 passengers were boarding the S.S. Eastland where it was docked in downtown Chicago, the ship began to list. The boat, which was to take employees of Western Electric Company on a cruise of Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Ind. for a company picnic, leaned starboard, then port, then back to starboard. At around 7:25 a.m., it listed to port more severely; then, slowly, it tipped over, coming to rest on its left side in 20 feet of water. Passengers were thrown from the deck into the river, and many below deck drowned in their cabins. In total, 844 people died, making it the worst disaster in Great Lakes history.


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Launched in 1903, the 265-foot boat—which was initially designed to hold 650 passengers—was flawed from the start: It was top-heavy, had no keel, and relied on ballast tanks, which were poorly designed, to keep it level. It had its first brush with disaster just a year later, when the ship, which had been certified to carry 3300 passengers, nearly capsized with 3000 people on board. Two years later, a severe listing occurred with 2530 people on board. Retrofitting in 1913 upped the Eastland’s official capacity to 2500, and likely imbued the craft with structural issues in addition to its other problems.

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Then, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the LaFollette Seaman's Act into law. Spurred by the Titanic’s sinking, the bill decreed that vessels have enough lifeboats to save 75 percent of their passengers. Despite a warning from the general manager of the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company that some Great Lakes boats "would turn 'turtle' if you attempted to navigate them with this additional weight on the upper decks," and although the law wouldn’t go into effect until November, the Eastland—a boat designed to hold six lifeboats—was given 11 lifeboats, 37 liferafts, and lifejackets for all the passengers and crew just three weeks before the disaster.

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Though bystanders jumped in the river to save victims, and rescuers cutting through the hull managed to pull out 40 survivors, the toll of the disaster was horrific: 70 percent of the victims were under 25 years old; 21 full families were wiped out. By all accounts, it was horrifying to watch.

"The screaming was terrible," a man told The Chicago Tribune. "I watched one woman who seemed to be thrown from the top deck ... I saw her white hat float down the river, and that was all." Chicago Herald reporter Harlan Babcock wrote that, "When the boat toppled on its side those on the upper deck were hurled off like so many ants being brushed from a table. In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks."

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Investigations into the disaster began almost immediately, and dragged on for 24 years. Chief engineer Joseph Erickson, who was in charge of managing the Eastland’s ballast, was ultimately blamed, but these days, most believe it was the addition of extra lifeboats that rendered the Eastland so unstable. After it was pulled up from the river, the Eastland was renamed, commissioned as a naval vessel, then scrapped after World War II.


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For more on the Eastland disaster, check out this Smithsonian article and this memorial page.