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844 Dead In Downtown Chicago….July 24, 1915…S.S. Eastland Turned On Its Side

July 24, 2011

About a decade ago James and I were on one of our walks in downtown Chicago when we passed near a historical marker for an event I was stunned to have not heard about before, given the enormity of death that took place.  On this anniveray CP takes a look back on what  remains one of the most perplexing stories from the pages of Chicago’s history.

The disaster took place on an excursion boat only a few feet from shore. The S.S. Eastland was full of Western Electric Company employees bound for a company picnic. A large crowd of horrified spectators watched as the ship — still tied to the dock — turned on its side. It was in just 20 feet of water, but that was deep enough to drown hundreds of people trapped or trampled below decks. —

“The screaming was terrible.”

At 7:25 a.m., the list to port became more severe. A refrigerator behind the bar toppled over with a crash, and the 2,573 passengers and crew suddenly realized that disaster was upon them. As it was being cast loose from its moorings on the south bank of the Chicago River between LaSalle and Clark Streets, the Eastland slowly settled on its side. The ship was only a few feet from the wharf, where a large crowd of horrified spectators watched, and it was in only 20 feet of water. That, however, was deep enough to drown 844 people who were trapped or trampled below decks. Although most were young factory workers from Berwyn and Cicero, 21 entire families were wiped out.

“The screaming was terrible,” one man told the Tribune, which devoted 11 pages of coverage to the disaster. “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.”

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