Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Eastland Disaster -- The Ship That Capsized Without Leaving the Dock


by Pamela S. Meyers 

The Eastland, heading out for a cruise on Lake Michigan.

Imagine yourself as a recent Polish immigrant. It is July 24, 1915. Your husband, Karol, immigrated to America two years earlier and you and baby Stefan joined him a year later after he landed a well-paying job at Western Electric in Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Karol has raved about Western Electric’s annual employee picnic that he attended last year while you and baby Stefan were en route to America. Today, you’ll attend this year’s picnic as a family of three.
Map of routes used by passenger ships crossing to
Indiana and Michigan. Note that 
Michigan City is only about 38 miles away. 
Map is featured in the book Capsized! (cited below)

Too excited to sleep, you dress quietly in the front room of your small apartment, imagining the short boat ride across Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana, and the park where the picnic is to be held. You’ll next wake Stefan and get him fed and dressed. Noises sound from the bedroom. Karol is up now, wanting to get an early start for the dock if they’re to find space on the SS Eastland, dubbed the speed queen of the Great Lakes. He’d been like a small boy all week talking about the opportunity to ride on such a magnificent vessel. 

Later, as you walk toward the Chicago River, Karol carrying Stefan and you, the picnic basket, voices become louder as you approach. So many people had arrived before you? Did they all sleep there?

Karol hands Stefan to you, saying he’ll rush ahead to claim three spaces on the ship. You nod and send him off. He disappears into the mass of people. Jostled on all sides by the pressing crowd, you make your way to the wharf. A tall man wearing a military-like uniform blocks the next people in line from stepping on the gangplank. He puts a bullhorn to his mouth, "The Eastland has reached full capacity and can’t take on more passengers." 

A loud groan fills the air as the man continues. "The next ship will be along as soon as the Eastland pulls away from the wharf. Everyone will get to Michigan City and not miss a single event.” 

Crestfallen, you scan the Eastland’s upper deck for Karol. There are too many people jostling for space at the rail. He must be standing behind someone. They’d already agreed if they became separated at the dock, they’d meet up in Michigan City at the park entrance. Stefan squirms, wanting down. But the small boy would certainly be trampled by the crowd already pushing forward and angling to be first to board the next ship. 

“Stand back! She’s tipping!” 

You look toward the Eastland to see the entire ship rolling onto its side and people tumbling into the murky water. You hug Stefan closer and step aside to allow men through, already shedding their jackets as they run to pull people from the river. Assured that Karol knows how to swim, you carry your boy away from the frantic crowd and stand next to a weeping woman. You whisper a prayer that this won’t be your first day of widowhood for either of you.

Taken about 75 minutes after the ship flipped on its side. Many could get on top of the side that sat above water, but others were not as able. 
In total, 844 people lost their lives, including the crew and children.


 The scene above is only from my imagination based on articles I’ve read about the Eastland Disaster. It amazes me that even though, by the end of that horrific day, more people lost their lives than those who experienced the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, or later, in 1912, when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. In the days following the Eastland event, only a few people spoke of it again amongst themselves. As if by not mentioning it, it would seem it never happened. But the traumatic experience did happen and remained locked in the recesses of their minds. A form of self-protection that allows the survivors to continue on. 

I read one explanation for this “social amnesia,” as it was called, that makes sense to me. The memories were too painful to relive in the telling, and many people blocked them out as a defense mechanism. Now, 107 years later, questions about that tragic day continue to emerge. The first question usually asked is how did a large steamship, originally designed as a cargo ship, which had plied the waters of Lake Michigan for a long while suddenly tip over on its side?

The answer lies in how the stability of the ship was severely compromised as different owners tweaked the design to accommodate more passengers. Cargo was usually stored in the lower parts of the ship which aided the narrow vessel to not list. People on pleasure cruises, which did not haul cargo, wanted to stay on the upper decks to enjoy the fresh air and views. To accommodate the weight of those passengers, concrete was poured on the upper decks' floors.

The Eastland’s design did include a pair of ballasts at its lowest point. When filled with water, the ballasts helped stop the ship from listing from one side to the other. On that July day, the ship’s captain ordered the ballasts to be emptied to allow the ship to sink lower into the water during the boarding process, but he never ordered them to be refilled. 

According to, this is how it happened:

The ship was packed, with many passengers standing on the open upper decks, and began to list slightly to the port side (away from the wharf). The crew attempted to stabilize the ship by admitting water into her ballast tanks, but to little avail. At some time during the next 15 minutes, a number of passengers rushed to the port side, and at 7:28 am, Eastland lurched sharply to port, and then rolled completely onto her port side, coming to rest on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet (6.1 m) below the surface; barely half the vessel was submerged.

The company magazine featured an article 
to encourage people to sign up for the cruise 
and picnic

In the decks below, crammed with passengers, people fell onto what had been a side wall, and others fell on top of them. Crushed under the weight, many suffocated. Even those who were still able to breathe could barely move, trapped with no means of escape. 

What had begun as a joyous day for the thousands who worked for Western Electric,
ended as a day of doom for those who survived, as well as for those who lost their lives. A great many people who lived through the tragedy managed to bury the memories deep in the recesses of their minds. It was the only coping mechanism they knew. 

A friend of mine who grew up in Chicago during the fifties and sixties told me she heard nothing about the Eastland disaster until she was grown when someone told her a woman from her extended family died on the ship. She was shocked at how it hadn't been mentioned in her family for decades. 

Clara Olbinski lost her life on the
SS Eastland. (An ancestor of my friend)

Despite the horrific accident, after the ship was righted and repaired, it was returned to Lake Michigan, where it docked at St. Joseph, Michigan. It continued operating for a short while as a passenger ship at a much-reduced capacity level. It was then sold to the U.S. Navy, where it was renovated and reconfigured to be a gunboat. It also received a new name, USS Wilmette, which ironically is the name of a north shore Chicago suburb. 

The vessel finally met its demise at the close of WWII and was scrapped. 

Many stories and facts about this ill-fated ship can be found on the internet. Far too many to include here. Have you heard about the SS Eastland, or were any of your ancestors on the Eastland that day?

Capsized! The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster; Patricia Sutton, Chicago Review Press, Reprint Edition, July 7, 2020 
Eastland Disaster (Images of America); Ted Wachholz, The Eastland Disaster Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina, 2005

Author's note: I didn't feature the more gruesome photos found online, but they are easy to locate if you want to see them. Google-search SS Eastland and a lot of hits will pop up. Beware: Some photos will move you to tears.

Pam Meyers calls herself a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin native who happens to live in Illinois.

She's written several novels, most notably five historicals set in Lake Geneva.

She is enjoying retirement, serving at her church, and trying to keep her two rescue cats in line. There is always a new story stirring her muse, and one of these days, she's going to start writing one.


  1. Thanks for posting today, what a tragic event. I almost forgot that your opening scene was imagined, and I'm going to assume Karol was fine. It is strange how people didn't speak of the tragedy...hidden trauma isn't usually a good thing.

  2. Wow! I can understand people not wanting to talk about it, but who at a horrible tragedy!

  3. I had never heard anything about the Eastland disaster until I read Jocelyn Greens most recent novel.

    1. I'm reading that novel right now, Patty. Gripping descriptions. She did her research well.