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On This Day in 1915, The SS Eastland Capsized on the Chicago River

Meredith Francis
A black and white image of the SS Eastland capsized in the Chicago River
People stand atop the capsized Eastland steamer in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. Image: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-040126; Jun Fujita, photographer

July 24 marks the anniversary of the Eastland Disaster, which killed 844 people when the steamship sank on the Chicago River between the Clark and LaSalle Street bridges in 1915.

It was supposed to be a day of fun, with employees from Western Electric set to sail across Lake Michigan for the annual company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. More than 2,500 crew members and passengers, many of whom were European immigrant workers, were due to board the SS Eastland, a passenger steamship, for the trip. At around 7:30 in the morning, with many people already on board, the ship began to slowly tilt back and forth. Eventually, it tipped to a degree that the ship rolled over—slowly—onto its port side. Some people were trapped inside the ship and drowned, others suffocated in the crowd, and some were crushed by heavy furniture or other objects in the ship. A large crowd of onlookers witnessed the entire disaster, as the ship never left the dock.

The ship had a reputation for being unstable. It had nearly capsized 11 years before on Lake Michigan. Following the Titanic disaster three years earlier, changes in maritime law required ships to carry more lifeboats, which, though intended to make the ship safer, actually made it even more top-heavy. The ship had also been recently cleared to increase its passenger capacity, so there were perhaps too many people on board.

In the image above from the Chicago History Museum, people stand on the side of the capsized ship. Makeshift morgues around the city were set up so people could identify their loved ones.