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SS Eastland

Coordinates: 41°53′14.0″N 87°37′54.1″W / 41.887222°N 87.631694°W / 41.887222; -87.631694
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SS Eastland in Cleveland (1911)
SS Eastland in Cleveland, Ohio (1911)
United States
OwnerMichigan Steamship Company
RouteSouth Haven, Michigan – Chicago, Illinois
OrderedOctober 1902
BuilderJenks Ship Building Company
Launched6 May 1903
ChristenedMay 1903 by Francis Elizabeth Stufflebeam
Maiden voyage16 July 1903
Nickname(s)"Speed queen of the Great Lakes"
Honors and
  • 1903 First Team All Boat
  • 1903 Boat of the Year
FateSold during 1905 to the Michigan Transportation Company
United States
OwnerMichigan Transportation Company
OperatorChicago-South Haven Line
RouteSouth Haven – Chicago route
FateSold 5 August 1906, to the Lake Shore Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio
United States
OwnerLake Shore Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio
RouteCleveland-Cedar Point route
FateSold during 1909 to the Eastland Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio
United States
OwnerEastland Navigation Company of Cleveland, Ohio
RouteCleveland-Cedar Point route
FateSold on 1 June 1914 to the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company of St. Joseph, Michigan.
United States
OwnerSt. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company of St. Joseph, Michigan
RouteSt. Joseph, Michigan, to Chicago route
FateRaised after accident in October 1915 and sold at auction on 20 December 1915 to Captain Edward A. Evers, sold on 21 November 1917 to the Illinois Naval Reserve.
United States Navy
NameUSS Wilmette
Acquired21 November 1917
Commissioned20 September 1918
  • 29 June 1920
  • 9 April 1945
  • 9 July 1919
  • 15 February 1940
  • 28 November 1945
RenamedWilmette on 20 February 1918
  • Gunboat 1918
  • IX-29 on 17 February 1941
Stricken19 December 1945
Honors and
FateSold for scrap on 31 October 1946 to Hyman Michaels Company of Chicago and scrapped, scrapping completed in 1947
General characteristics
TypePassenger Ship
Tonnage1,961 gross
Displacement2,600 (estimated)
Length265 ft (81 m)
Beam38 ft 2 in (11.63 m)
Draft19 ft 6 in (5.94 m)
Installed power
PropulsionTwo shafts
Speed16.5 knots (30.6 km/h; 19.0 mph)
CapacityAs Eastland: 2,752 passengers
ComplementAs USS Wilmette: 209
  • As USS Wilmette:
  • Four 4-inch guns
  • Two 3-inch guns
  • Two 1-pounder guns
  • Two funnels
  • Two masts

SS Eastland was a passenger ship based in Chicago and used for tours. On 24 July 1915, the ship rolled over onto its side while tied to a dock in the Chicago River.[1] In total, 844 passengers and crew were killed in what was the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes.[1][2]

After the disaster, Eastland was salvaged and sold to the United States Navy. After restorations and modifications, Eastland was designated a gunboat and renamed USS Wilmette. She was used primarily as a training vessel on the Great Lakes, and was scrapped after World War II.



The ship was ordered during 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and built by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan.[3] The ship was named in May 1903, immediately before her inaugural voyage.



Early problems


On 27 July of her 1903 inaugural season, the ship struck the laid-up tugboat George W. Gardner, which sank at its dock at the Lake Street Bridge in Chicago. Eastland received only minor damage.[4][5]

Mutiny on the Eastland


On 14 August 1903, while on a cruise from Chicago to South Haven, Michigan, six of the ship's firemen refused to stoke the fire for the ship's boiler, claiming that they had not received their potatoes for a meal.[4] When they refused to return to the fire hole, Captain John Pereue arrested the six men at gunpoint. Firemen George Lippen and Benjamin Myers, who were not a part of the group of six, stoked the fires until the ship reached harbor. Upon the ship's arrival in South Haven, the six men were taken to the town jail and charged with mutiny. Shortly thereafter, Captain Pereue was replaced.[4]

Speed modifications


Because the ship did not meet a targeted speed of 22 miles per hour (35 km/h) during her inaugural season and had a draft too deep for the Black River in South Haven, Michigan, where she was being loaded, the ship returned in September 1903 to Port Huron for modifications, including the addition of an air-conditioning system, an induced-draft system for the boilers to increase power, and repositioning of the ship's machinery to reduce the draft of the hull.[4][6][7] Even though the modifications increased the ship's speed, the lesser hull draft and extra weight mounted up high reduced the metacentric height and inherent stability as originally designed.[6][7]

The SS Eastland under the State Street Bridge in Chicago

Listing incidents


Upon her return to South Haven in May 1904, the ship handily won a race to Chicago against the City of South Haven.[6] In the meantime, the Eastland was experiencing periodic problems with her stability while loading and unloading cargo and passengers, and nearly capsized on 17 July 1904 after leaving South Haven with about 3,000 passengers.[4][6] Subsequently, her capacity was lowered to 2,800 passengers, cabins were removed, lifeboats were added and the hull was repaired. On 5 August 1906, another listing incident occurred, which resulted in complaints filed against the Chicago-South Haven Line that had purchased the ship earlier that year.[6]

Before the 1907 season, the ship was sold to the Lake Shore Navigation Company and moved to Lake Erie.[4] In 1909, the ship was sold again to the Eastland Navigation Company and continued running excursions between Cleveland and Cedar Point.[6] After the 1909 season, the remaining 39 cabins were removed, and prior to the 1912 season, the top smokestack sections were removed to shorten her stack height.[6] On 1 July 1912, another incident occurred when the Eastland experienced a severe listing of about 25° while loading passengers in Cleveland.[4][6]

In June 1914, the Eastland was sold to the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and returned to Lake Michigan for St. Joseph, Michigan-to-Chicago service.[4]

The Eastland disaster


On 24 July 1915, Eastland and four other Great Lakes passenger steamersTheodore Roosevelt, Petoskey, Racine, and Rochester—were chartered to take employees from Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.[8][9]

The federal Seamen's Act had been passed in 1915 following the RMS Titanic disaster three years earlier. The law required retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on Eastland, as on many other passenger vessels.[10] This additional weight may have made Eastland more dangerous by making her even more top-heavy. Some argued that other Great Lakes ships would suffer from the same problem,[10] but the bill was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. Eastland's owners could choose to either maintain a reduced capacity or add lifeboats to increase capacity, and they elected to add lifeboats to qualify for a license to increase the ship's capacity to 2,570 passengers.[11] Eastland was already so top-heavy that she had special restrictions concerning the number of passengers that could be carried. In June 1914, Eastland had again changed ownership, this time bought by the St. Joseph and Chicago Steamship Company, with captain Harry Pederson appointed the ship's master. In 1914, the company removed the old hardwood flooring of the forward dining room on the cabin level and replaced it with 2 inches (51 mm) of concrete. It also added a layer of concrete near the aft gangway. This added 15–20 tons of weight.[12]

Postcard of the Eastland and Pederson; postmarked 24 July 1915

On the morning of 24 July, passengers began boarding Eastland on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets at about 6:30 a.m., and by 7:10 a.m., the ship had reached her capacity of 2,572 passengers. Many passengers were standing on the open upper decks when the ship 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 7:28 a.m., Eastland lurched sharply to port and then rolled completely onto her port side, coming to rest on the river bottom, only 20 feet (6.1 m) below the surface; barely half of the vessel was submerged. Many passengers had already moved below decks on the cool and damp morning to warm themselves before the departure. Consequently, hundreds were trapped inside by the water and the sudden rollover, and some were crushed by heavy furniture, including pianos, bookcases and tables. The ship was only 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the wharf, and the crew of the nearby vessel Kenosha responded quickly by pulling alongside the hull to allow stranded passengers to leap to safety. However, 844 passengers and four crew members died. Many of the passengers on Eastland were immigrants, with large numbers from present-day Czech Republic, Poland, Norway, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Hungary, and Austria.[13] Many of the Czech immigrants had settled in Cicero; of the Czech passengers aboard, 220 perished in the disaster.[13]

The bodies were taken to various temporary morgues established in the area for identification; by afternoon, the remaining unidentified bodies were consolidated in the armory of the 2nd Regiment.[8][14]

In the aftermath, the Western Electric Company provided $100,000 to relief and recovery efforts of the family members of the victims.

Among those scheduled to be on Eastland was 20-year-old football player George Halas, later the coach and owner of the Chicago Bears and a founding member of the National Football League, who was delayed leaving for the dock and arrived after the ship had overturned. Halas's name was listed on the list of deceased in newspapers, but he was later revealed to be unharmed. His friend and future Bears executive Ralph Brizzolara and his brother were on the Eastland when she capsized but escaped through portholes.[15] Despite rumors to the contrary, entertainer Jack Benny was neither aboard Eastland nor scheduled for the excursion.

The first known film footage of the recovery efforts was discovered and released in 2015.[16]

Marion Eichholz, the last known survivor, died on 24 November 2014 at the age of 102.[17]

Media reports


Writer Jack Woodford witnessed the disaster and offered a first-hand account to the Herald and Examiner. In his autobiography, Woodford wrote:

And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn't believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.

Carl Sandburg, then known better as a journalist than as a poet, wrote an angry account for The International Socialist Review, accusing regulators of ignoring safety issues and claiming that many of the workers were aboard following company orders for a mandatory staged picnic.[18] Sandburg also wrote a poem, "The Eastland", which contrasted the disaster with the mistreatment and poor health of the lower classes. Sandburg concluded the poem with a comparison: "I see a dozen Eastlands/Every morning on my way to work/And a dozen more going home at night."[19] The poem was considered too harsh for publication when written, but was eventually published in a collection of poems in 1993.[20]

Inquiry and indictments


A grand jury indicted the president and three other officers of the steamship company for manslaughter, and the ship's captain and engineer for criminal carelessness, and found that the disaster was caused by "conditions of instability" caused by overloading of passengers, mishandling of water ballast and the ship's faulty construction.[21]

During hearings regarding the extradition of the men to Illinois for trial, principal witness Sidney Jenks, president of the company that built Eastland, testified that her first owners wanted a fast ship to transport fruit, and he designed one capable of reaching 20 mph (32 km/h) and carrying 500 passengers. Defense counsel Clarence Darrow asked whether Jenks had ever concerned himself with the potential conversion of the ship into a passenger steamer with a capacity of 2,500 or more passengers. Jenks replied, "I had no way of knowing the quantity of its business after it left our yards ... No, I did not worry about the Eastland." Jenks testified that a stability test of the ship was never performed, and stated that after tilting to an angle of 45° at launching, "it righted itself as straight as a church, satisfactorily demonstrating its stability."[22]

The court refused extradition, holding that the evidence was too weak, with "barely a scintilla of proof" to establish probable cause to find the six guilty. The court reasoned that the four company officers were not aboard the ship, and that every act charged against the captain and engineer was performed in the ordinary course of business, "more consistent with innocence than with guilt." The court also reasoned that Eastland "was operated for years and carried thousands safely", and therefore the accused were justified in believing the ship to be seaworthy.[23]


Second life as USS Wilmette

USS Wilmette, c. 1918

After Eastland was raised on 14 August 1915, she was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and recommissioned as USS Wilmette, stationed at the Naval Station Great Lakes. She was converted to a gunboat, renamed Wilmette on 20 February 1918, and commissioned on 20 September 1918 under captain William B. Wells.[24] Commissioned late in World War I, Wilmette did not experience combat. It trained sailors and experienced normal upkeep and repairs until placed in ordinary at Chicago on 9 July 1919, retaining a 10-man caretaker crew aboard. On 29 June 1920, the gunboat was returned to full commission.[24]

On 7 June 1921, Wilmette was tasked with sinking UC-97, a German U-boat surrendered to the United States after World War I.[25] The guns of Wilmette were manned by gunner's mate J. O. Sabin, who had fired the first American cannon of World War I, and gunner's mate A. F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the war.[26]

For the remainder of her 25-year career, the gunboat served as a training ship for naval reservists of the 9th, 10th and 11th Naval Districts. It made voyages along the shores of the Great Lakes carrying trainees assigned to her from the Naval Station Great Lakes. Wilmette was placed "out of commission, in service" on 15 February 1940.[24]

Given hull designation IX-29 on 17 February 1941, she resumed training duty at Chicago on 30 March 1942, preparing armed guard crews for duty manning the guns on armed merchantmen. That assignment continued until the end of World War II in Europe obviated measures to protect transatlantic merchant shipping from German U-boats.[24]

During August 1943, Wilmette transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy, James F. Byrnes and Harry Hopkins[4] on a 10-day fishing vacation in McGregor and Whitefish Bay.[27]

On 9 April 1945, she was returned to full commission for a brief interval. Wilmette was decommissioned on 28 November 1945, and her name was deleted from the Navy list on 19 December 1945. During 1946, Wilmette was offered for sale, but on 31 October 1946, she was sold to the Hyman Michaels Company for scrapping, which was completed in 1947.[24]


Historical marker along the Chicago River

A marker commemorating the accident was dedicated on 4 June 1989. This marker was reported stolen on 26 April 2000, and a replacement marker was installed and rededicated on 24 July 2003.

Plans exist for a permanent outdoor exhibit with a proposed name of "At The River's Edge". This exhibit would be located along the portion of the Chicago Riverwalk adjacent to the site of the disaster and is planned to consist of panels with text and images.[28]

On 12 July 2015, 100 years after the disaster, a memorial to the dead was dedicated at Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago.


The disaster was incorporated into the 1999 series premiere of the Disney Channel original series So Weird, in which teenage paranormal enthusiast Fiona Phillips encounters the ghost of a boy who drowned.[29]

In 2012, Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre produced a musical entitled Eastland: A New Musical, written by Andy White and scored by Ben Collins-Sussman and Andre Pluess.[30][31]

The Eastland disaster is also pivotal to the story of one family told in the play/musical Failure: A Love Story, written by Philip Dawkins, which premiered in Chicago in 2012 at Victory Gardens Theater.[32] The play premiered in Los Angeles on 24 July 2015, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.[33] The play was again staged in Chicago at the Oil Lamp Theater and was nominated for multiple awards.[34]

In 2024, Chicago's Neo-Futurists produced a puppetry show based on the disaster entitled Switchboard.[35]

See also



  1. ^ a b "The Eastland". Eastland Memorial Society. Archived from the original on 24 March 2016. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  2. ^ Baillod, Brendon. "Introduction". The Wreck of the Steamer Lady Elgin. Archived from the original on 27 July 2015. Retrieved 26 April 2009.
  3. ^ "Jenks Shipbuilding, Port Huron MI". Shipbuilding History. Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. Retrieved 26 June 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Eastland (1903)". Builder's Data and History. Maritime Quest. Archived from the original on 16 February 2020. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  5. ^ "Annual report of the Supervising Inspector-general Steamboat-inspection Service, Year ending June 30, 1903". Washington: Government Printing Office. 1903. p. 75. Archived from the original on 7 April 2022. Retrieved 18 May 2020 – via Haithi Trust.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Eastland - Early Life". Eastland Memorial Society. Archived from the original on 19 January 2009. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  7. ^ a b Hilton, George (1995). Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic. Stanford University Press. pp. 41–43. ISBN 0-8047-2801-1. Whatever may have been the additional weight from the induced-draft and air-conditioning systems, it was enough to cause the ship to squat when under way, promising to aggravate her chronic problem of striking bottom. To deal with the problem Wood undertook to relocate some of the ship's machinery. The exact nature of the repositioning was never stated, either at the time or after the disaster. Because the ship's machinery was quite limited, this probably meant some forward or aft movement of the engines and incidentally moving the condensers. ... The new induced-draft and air-conditioning systems, combined with Wood's repositioning of machinery to reduce her draft, however, produced a ship that was to prove chronically top-heavy.
  8. ^ a b "Eastland Memorial Edition". Western Electric News. August 1915. Archived from the original on 14 September 2011. Retrieved 14 August 2012.
  9. ^ Hilton, George (1995). Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic. Stanford University Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-8047-2801-1.
  10. ^ a b "The Prophecy". The Eastland – Lake Erie. Eastland Memorial Society. Archived from the original on 22 January 2009. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  11. ^ Bonansinga, Jay (2004). The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy. Citadel Press. p. 52. ISBN 0-8065-2628-9.
  12. ^ Bonansinga (2004)
  13. ^ a b "The Passengers". Eastland Disaster Historical Society. 2022. Archived from the original on 25 September 2022. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  14. ^ "ITB: Eastland ghost stories". Chicago Bears. 29 October 2013. Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. Retrieved 5 November 2013. He decided they needed to set up a consolidated, temporary morgue. They did at the 2nd Regiment Armory building, which later became the studios for Oprah Winfrey.
  15. ^ "ITB: Halas escapes Eastland Disaster". Chicago Bears. 29 October 2013. Archived from the original on 13 December 2013. Retrieved 5 November 2013.
  16. ^ Rodriguez, Meredith (8 February 2015). "First known film clips emerge of 1915 Eastland disaster". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on 12 February 2015. Retrieved 12 February 2015.
  17. ^ Manchir, Michelle (14 December 2014). "Last Survivor of 1915 Eastland Disaster Dies". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on 14 December 2014. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  18. ^ Sandburg, Carl (September 1915). "Looking 'em over". The International Socialist Review. XVI (3): 132–137.
  19. ^ Sandburg, Carl. "Eastland". Archived from the original on 23 June 2015. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  20. ^ Sandburg, Carl (1993). Hendrik, George; Hendrik, Willene (eds.). Billy Sunday and Other Poems. Harcourt Brace & Company. p. xiii.
  21. ^ "Six Are Indicted for Eastland Loss – President of the Company, Captain, and Engineer Among Those Held for Disaster". The New York Times. 11 August 1915. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  22. ^ "Eastland Never Tested – Builder of Ill-Fated Ship Says She Was Designed to Carry 500". The New York Times. 23 January 1916. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  23. ^ "Nation Loses Point in Eastland Case; Court Refuses Application for Removal of Indicted Persons to Jurisdiction of Illinois". The New York Times. 18 February 1916. Archived from the original on 5 January 2024. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  24. ^ a b c d e "Wilmette". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. United States Navy. Archived from the original on 7 August 2020. Retrieved 26 April 2009.
  25. ^ "The UC-97". Eastland Disaster Historical Society. Archived from the original on 10 August 2007. Retrieved 26 April 2009.
  26. ^ "USS Wilmette". Eastland Memorial Society. Archived from the original on 19 January 2009. Retrieved 26 April 2009.
  27. ^ Mount, Graeme S. (July 2001). "Myths and Realties: FDR's Vacation on Lake Huron, 1-7 August 1943" (PDF). The Northern Mariner. XI (3): 23–32. doi:10.25071/2561-5467.600. S2CID 247554079. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 October 2023.
  28. ^ "At The River's Edge A permanent outdoor Eastland Disaster exhibit". Eastland Disaster Historical Society. Archived from the original on 9 October 2016. Retrieved 29 January 2016.
  29. ^ AwesomeTVShows. "So Weird 1x01 – Family Reunion". Dailymotion. Archived from the original on 8 January 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  30. ^ Ingram, Bruce (28 June 2012). "Musical Memorial for a Chicago Tragedy". Deerfield Review. Glenview, IL: Pioneer Press. pp. 98=B.
  31. ^ Zoglin, Richard (27 June 2012). "Scandal in the Second City: Two Remarkable Shows From Chicago". Time. Archived from the original on 6 March 2021. Retrieved 7 September 2020.
  32. ^ "Failure: A Love Story*". Victory Gardens. 23 July 2019. Archived from the original on 28 August 2022. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  33. ^ Rohrer, Jason (24 July 2015). "Theater Review: FAILURE: A LOVE STORY (Coeurage Theatre Company at GTC in Burbank – Los Angeles)". stageandcinema.com. Archived from the original on 28 July 2015. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  34. ^ "Failure: A Love Story". Oil Lamp Theater. Archived from the original on 9 August 2022. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  35. ^ "SWITCHBOARD". The Neo-Futurist Theater. 21 November 2023. Retrieved 10 January 2024.



Further reading


41°53′14.0″N 87°37′54.1″W / 41.887222°N 87.631694°W / 41.887222; -87.631694