The veteran Chicago newspaper writer, covering the waterfront on a cool and cloudy morning on July 24, 1915, could not believe what he was seeing.
One minute, the 275-foot Eastland, preparing to depart with a full load of passengers on a Western Electric company picnic to Michigan City, Ind., was tied up at the wharf on the Chicago River — and then she was gone, the morning calm broken by the screams of the dying.
“A steamer as large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side,” Jack Woodford wrote in the Herald and Examiner, “as though it were a whale, going to take a nap.” The passenger death toll reached 841 in the greatest loss of life from a single ship disaster in Great Lakes history.
The 12-year-old Eastland was already known as a tender vessel, especially with passengers on the upper deck. But water ballast tanks seemed to be effective in controlling the problem. Then came the Titanic disaster in 1912. In its wake, federal law called for retrofitting passenger vessels with a full complement of lifeboats. The addition of these boats — hung from near deck level — may have worsened the Eastland’s listing tendency.
As passengers boarded that morning, they congregated on the starboard side — toward the wharf — and the Eastland began to list to starboard. Engineers flooded the port ballast tanks and the ship straightened, but then began to list to port. With 2,501 passengers on board, water began to flood through the port gangways and scuppers as the list worsened.
Some accounts state there was a canoe race on the river, and passengers flocked to the port side to watch. Eastland listed heavily, and passengers were unable to move to the starboard side because of the angle of the deck. As water rushed in on the port side, she quietly rolled, coming to rest on the mud of the Chicago River in 20 feet of water, just 20 feet from the pier.
The passengers inside either drowned or were crushed by tumbling furniture and other items. The nearby tug Kenosha served as a bridge to the wharf for survivors stranded on the hull.
“I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this, before my eyes, with no explosion, no fire, nothing,” Woodford wrote. “I thought I had gone crazy.”
The Eastland was raised and salvaged and was eventually sold to the U.S. Navy. She was scrapped in 1947.
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.