The capsizing of the lake passenger steamship Eastland, which caused the death of 812 persons, occurred in the Chicago river at the Clark Street bridge, in the very heart of the City of Chicago, about 7:20 o ‘clock on the morning of Saturday, July 24, 1915.
The boat was one of four which the employees of the “Western Electric Company had chartered to carry 7,000 men, women and children on an annual outing to Michigan City, Ind. The Eastland was to have left the dock at 7:30 o ‘clock, and was to have been followed at halfhour intervals by the other steamers.
The excursionists began to arrive at the dock as early as 6 o’clock in the morning, wishing to sail on the first boat and make the day as long as possible. As soon as the gates were thrown open a solid line of people, two abreast, moved upon the boat, and by 7:10 o’clock there were approximately 2,500 persons aboard.
The Indiana Transportation Company, which furnished the boats for the excursionists, had announced that if the boat were loaded before the hour set for sailing, she would not wait until 7:30. When the boat was filled, preparations were made to sail at once. One line had been cast off and the boat was beginning to swing into the stream.
The 2,500 or more passengers, largely women and children, were in high spirits. The little ones were romping as well as they could on decks so crowded that one could scarcely walk, and the older ones were waving and shouting to their friends who were boarding the other boats.
About 7:10 o’clock the boat listed slowly over away from the dock, swayed back almost to an even keel, then began to list again, and slowly turned over and lay flat on her port side in some 18 feet of water, with the keel only a few feet from the dock.
At first the people thought there was nothing unusual about the movement of the boat. It was not until the second listing had progressed so far as to overturn a refrigerator that the crowd became alarmed.
Then the cheers and wavings and shouts of glee gave way to cries of terror, and a mad panic ensued. A number who were on the starboard side of the boat, next the dock, scrambled ashore or dropped into the water and were pulled out by rescuers, for the boat turned over very slowly.
Several hundred, gathered on the upper or hurricane deck, were spilled overboard into the river, and swam ashore, or were saved by the rescuers.
But many of the hundreds between decks were penned in and drowned or crushed to death. Some of the imprisoned held on until holes were cut in the side of the boat which remained above water, and were taken out alive, but terribly shattered by the horror. Hundreds were dead when finally the rescuers reached them.
News of the tragedy spread rapidly. The fire and police departments were called out; the river boats of both departments and other craft came to the rescue; scores of volunteer rescuers plunged into the work, and the task of taking the passengers from the boat and from the water where they had leaped or had been thrown, went on for hours. Some 1,700 reached shore alive, while the dead were already being laid in windrows along the bank.
The tally of dead finally reached 812, with a considerable list of injured, some of whom died later.
The people of Chicago sprang at once to the relief of those who had been bereaved. Entire families had been wiped out. Parents had gone to their death leaving a number of children. Sons and daughters had been drowned, leaving the parents childless. All the bread winners of other families had perished, leaving a number of dependents. And everywhere were funeral expenses and doctor bills to be met, while the survivors were almost or quite crazed.
Such was the situation when the American Red Cross was called upon to take charge of the relief work, prevent suffering for want of necessities of life among the survivors, see that the dead were given suitable burial, and adjust living conditions for the hundreds of women and children left without their natural protectors.
The accident was less than an hour old when the American Red Cross, represented by John J. O’Connor, Director of its Central Division, was at work at the scene.