On a rainy Saturday morning in July 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company, along with their families, set out for a day that should have been a happy one: an excursion across Lake Michigan to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.
What they couldn’t know was that the steamship they were boarding had been modified – dangerously so. The Eastland had added lifeboats to its upper deck in the wake of the Titanic disaster. That should have added to their safety, but it did not; the additional lifeboats added weight up top to a ship that was already known for instability.
Further adding to the risk, the Eastland had recently received approval to take on more passengers than ever before – up to 2,575; its top decking had been reinforced with concrete. Finally, the captain had ordered its ballast tanks to be emptied during passenger loading.
Before it could embark with its 2,500 passengers on board, the Eastland tipped first one way, then the other, and then capsized into the Chicago River right where it was docked at the foot of the Clark Street Bridge. People who had gone below decks to escape the drizzle were drowned, crushed, or smothered.
In the end, 844 passengers lost their lives within just a few feet of shore. Adding to the tragedy were the large numbers of children among the dead.
To deal with the huge numbers of bodies, the city had to press alternative spaces into service as makeshift morgues. One of those spaces was the Second Regiment Armory in the West Loop. For the next 48 hours, families came to identify their loved ones from the rows and rows of victims.
Today, the building that housed the Second Regiment Armory is part of the complex that makes up Harpo Studios, home for many years to The Oprah Winfrey Show and still an active television studio.
A plaque on the site commemorates the Eastland disaster and the loss of life.