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Chicago history: The wreck of the Eastland Niko Apostal 10/28/14


How many Chicagoans have heard of the wreck of the Eastland? The disaster is one of the greatest maritime disasters in history, topping even the sunken Titanic in terms of loss of life. And yet, less than 100 years after the tragedy, very few Chicagoans know about the wreck of the Eastland.

To try to rectify that oversight, this week Smithsonian Magazine ran an excellent article about the Eastland tragedy. A few of the things you’ll learn from the extremely well-researched article:

  • The Eastland was docked in the Chicago River (between Clark and LaSalle, per Wikipedia.)
  • The boat was approved to carry around 2,500 passengers and crew that day. Most of the passengers were employees (or the family of employees) of a single company — the Western Electric Company — and came from the same Hawthorne Works factory in Cicero. Many were Czech, Polish and Hungarian immigrants.
  • The boat was just one of seven that had been chartered to take the employees and their families on a day-long outing across Lake Michigan to the Indiana Dunes.
  • It was drizzling that morning, so many of the passengers stayed belowdecks after boarding, which would exacerbate the loss of life.
  • While still docked in the narrow river, the large and unstable vessel began to list to port and eventually capsized.
  • Part of the cause of the capsize was added weight from lifeboats that had been added to comply with legislation passed in the wake of the Titanic tragedy, which had taken place just one year earlier.
  • One of the reporters who covered the tragedy was a young Carl Sandburg, writing for the International Socialist Review.
  • One of the heroes of the rescue operation was a Western Electric nurse named Helen Repa, who expertly coordinated the rescue response at the hospital where victims were taken.
  • The final death toll of the Eastland disaster was 844 people, more than 70% of whom were under the age of 25 (and many of whom were in fact children.) This death toll exceeded that of the Titanic or the Lusitania.

The Chicago History Museum also has information about the wreck of the Eastland on display as part of their general Chicago History exhibit. The museum is well worth a visit for those interested in Chicago history!

*Photo courtesy of Flickr user Charles Carper.

File: Chicago history