Running through the city of Chicago, the Chicago River is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, and other sights and sounds typical to one of the largest cities in America. Yet among the bustle stands a single solitary plaque reminding visitors and locals of a tragic event that is not only unique to the city, but to all of maritime history when over 800 people perished in the river less than 20 feet from shore in an event that has become known as “Chicago’s Titanic.”
On the morning of July 24th, 1915 the S.S. Eastland sat docked near the Clarke Street Bridge in Chicago ready to take 2,500 excited employees from Western Electric on a cruise over Lake Michigan for their annual company picnic. The streamlined ship had a reputation for speed earning it the nickname “The Greyhound of the Lakes,” but it also had a second reputation for listing from side to side, a feature that had become more pronounced due to the addition of lifeboats near the top of the ship (an addition inspired by the Titanic). On the day of disaster, the ship had been repeatedly tilting all morning and suddenly at 7:30 am, the ship rolled onto its port side with all 2,500 passengers on board, throwing furniture and people to one side and trapping others in cabins, making the chance of survival for anyone standing on the port side of the ship extremely slim. At the time that it rolled over the Eastland was only 19 feet from the dock and was sitting in only 20 feet of water but 844 people died in the accident with as many people dying as a result of suffocation as drowning.
For many years the city of Chicago was quiet about the tragedy and it was not until 1990 that a memorial was unveiled at the site of the Eastland disaster. The memorial was subsequently stolen and in 2003 a new memorial plaque was placed at the corner of Wacker Drive and LaSalle Street.