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This Day in History : Eastland Disaster

By Jennifer on Jul 24, 2014 11:31 AM

The SS Eastland served as a Great Lakes passenger ship from 1903 to 1915. Early on, the SS Eastland was discovered to have a design flaw that made it prone to listing. Even though there were several near misses where the ship almost flipped over, it continued to serve as a passenger ship on the Great Lakes, earning the name "the Speed Queen of the Great Lakes".

In 1915, following the Titanic disaster, a law was passed requiring a complete set of lifeboats on passenger ships. This made the Eastland even more top-heavy, and may have contributed to the accident that occurred on July 24, 1915. The boat was anchored in the Chicago River, chartered along with two other ships to transport employees from the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works to a company picnic. A little after seven in the morning, the ship had been loaded to capacity, with just over 2,500 passengers on board. Many of the passengers were on the upper deck when the Eastland began to list away from the wharf. The crew attempted to correct the list by adding water to the ballast tanks, but had no success. When several passengers rushed to the port side of the ship, it rolled completely onto its side, and came to rest on the bottom of the river, 20 feet below the surface. Because the day was cold, many of the passengers had already gone inside the cabins. Some people were crushed by heavy furniture, others drowned. A total of 844 people lost their lives that day, despite the quick response of rescuers.

After the disaster, the Eastland was sold to the Navy and refitted as a gunship. It served through World War II, and was finally scrapped in 1947.

You can find out more information on the Eastland, and other Great Lakes ships, including articles, photos and other memorabilia in the Great Lakes Marine collection of the Milwaukee Public Library.

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