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The Eastland's historic sinking killed hundreds. Why isn't it remembered more?

Jul 23, 2015

Eastland Postcard: View of Eastland taken from Fire Tug in river
Credit Max Rigot Selling Company, Chicago / Set of 6 Penny postcard supplied by Kathe Kaul Estate Sales of Kansas City, MO. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Titanic and the Lusitania. Those ships are known around the world because of the horrific loss of life when they sank in the Atlantic.

But do we know the name Eastland?

It was 100 years ago this week when the steamer Eastland capsized at its dock in the Chicago River. 844 passengers died in that disaster and the majority of the dead were under the age of 25.

Caitlyn Perry Dial is a doctoral candidate in history at Western Michigan University and she has made the Eastland the focus of her dissertation.

She describes the start of July 24, 1915 as full of excitement for the working class citizens of the Western Electric company. Employees and their families were filing onto the Eastland to attend their company picnic.

It was a rainy day and many of the passengers had retreated below deck to avoid getting their best clothing they had worn for the occasion damp from the rain.

But soon the boat started to lean. One way, then the other, then back again and fully capsizing.

Dial says it happened within minutes. The boat began loading at 7 am and capsized by 7:30 am.

"The Eastland's capacity that morning was 2500 people and when the boat capsized 2500 people were on it," Dial says.

Dial's research has included hunting down recorded stories or those told by relatives of witnesses. She spoke to Dave Nelson, the grandson of a construction worker near the boat when the tragedy took place. Nelson says his grandfather rushed to the site and cut holes in the side of the boat for days to try to reach people.

Tugboats in the area also contributed to the rescue mission, forming a bridge from the boat to the dock so people who made it on top of the sunken ship could reach land.

But why did it sink in the first place?

Dial offers a range of factors that contributed to the tragedy. With the Titanic fresh in people's memories, a new rule requiring ships to provide life boats for all passengers had been put in place. The Eastland had originally been designed for six life boats. That morning it was carrying 11.

And the boat's design was also flawed. It was equipped for speed, not for carrying large amounts of weight and Dial says the boat was top heavy as a result. 

Dial’s research has led her to positing many reasons that the disaster is not at the forefront of public memory. As a region, she says Great Lakes history is often not given the attention she feels it deserves. And the events of the time period, such as World War I, the era's Chicago gangsters, and prohibition, distracted from the accident.

But another factor may be the passengers themselves. Dial says, "I definitely think it is related to the ethnicity and socio-economic background of the people that were on the boat."

There were no wealthy citizens like on the Titanic, and no high-powered family names to remember.

Dial's interest in the sinking began when she came across postcards showing the event and aftermath while working at the St. Joseph Heritage Museum.

"Considering myself a Great Lakes historian and not knowing anything about this, I just had to look into it more," she says, "And I ended up finding that there was this question that I needed to answer, which was: Why isn't this more memorable?"

--Katrina Shafer, Michigan Radio Newsroom