Chicago's Own Cruise Ship Disaster...

Chicago's Own Cruise Ship Disaster...
SS Eastland, July 24, 1915

News images of Carnival Cruise Line’s Costa Concordia sinking near shore off the coast of Italy bring back images of a similar horror that took place here in Chicago.

For years, nobody but geeky history buffs knew that one of the worst maritime disasters in United States history happened right off Wacker Drive, when the SS Eastland rolled over and sank.

It was July 24, 1915. Thousands of Western Electric employees were boarding a large ship anchored on the Chicago River, between LaSalle and Clark Streets, for a company picnic and a day of relaxation and fun. Their destination was Michigan City, Indiana.

The Eastland was apparently a cursed tub and not that stable, and on that fateful day, not balanced correctly through misplacement of ballast, and when the huge crowd on board rushed to wave to those still on shore, it rolled over on its side. Over 800 souls were lost, with entire families being killed.

Currently, there is a small plaque that serves as a memorial to the tragedy. It was stolen once, no doubt by that one Eastland disaster history geek that had to have it.

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society is a site dedicated to the Eastland and those who lost their lives. The EDHS has plans for a permanent memorial along the river walk. Other pages on the site detail who lost their lives, and who were saved by serendipity.

There is also an announcement about buying tickets early for the Eastland disaster musical?

A musical? I guess.

Millions have read books and watched movies about the Titanic sinking, so why not our own little epic set right here in Chicago?

As the fictional Rose says to the fictional and frozen Jack in the Titanic Move: “As a paying customer, I expect to get what I want.”

A fictional Western Electric employee might say to another: “What the hell, it was a free cruise, and I got what I expected.”

Eastland, the musical, opens June 06, 2012.

Wonder what Celine Dion is doing?


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  • Thanks, Richard, for drawing your comparison of the SS Eastland to the Costa Concordia. Many others have been contacting us about the same and have been posting comments on our Facebook page.

    Eastland: An Original Musical is an award-winning production from the 2011 Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre. We attended a concert version of the play at Millennium Park last April. It was so moving that when it concluded, half of the crowd of attendees were teary-eyed. Expect even more of the same this summer when it is performed with full live music and mic'd peformers on the uniquely-designed stage at the intimate Lookingglass Theatre.

    Ted Wachholz
    Executive Director, Eastland Disaster Historical Society

    (P.S. Adult tickets to the Western Electric picnic in 1915 cost $.75 to $1.00 each. What sounds like petty cash to us today was actually a significant expenditure -- a supervisor at Western Electric in 1915 typically brought home but $17 a week.)

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    In reply to edhsinc:

    I actually had family on the Eastland, my Great Uncle Joe and my Great Aunt Caroline "Carrie" Homolka. They were my grandmother's two siblings. Joe had the fortune of being on an upper deck and being a fantastic swimmer. Caroline was not so lucky being on a lower deck, and also as a female was never taught to swim. She died in the disaster at the age of seventeen. My Great Uncle Joe swam around and rescued people and looked in vain for Caroline. My grandmother Blanche never forgot waiting with a neighbor friend at the trolley stop in Lawndale for their siblings to return, of which neither did.
    My grandmother always told me how much I reminded her of Carrie and that meant the world to me because I know how much she loved and missed her older sister.
    I am angry and sad that the only time I got to meet this wonderful person was as a tombstone in the Bohemian National Cemetary.
    Much like I am angry and sad at so little mind being paid to this tragedy, and to have it now be trivialised in a musical.

  • In reply to Jen Petsche:

    Jen, your story just shows how long ago tragedies still effect the present day.

  • So sad what happenned. It is nice to have the Eastland Disaster Historical Society remember the loss.

  • Great article and another example of rare Chicago! I heard about this disaster a long time ago, but few people today (unless you take one of those tours) know anything about it.

  • Just put this in a combo with the Iriquois Theater fire and you've got two close disasters spots.

  • Judging from the photo, the "people on shore" were apparently on the starboard side. The ship is heeled over to port. If the passengers rushed to wave goodbye, why is this? Just asking.

  • In reply to stevemonjar:

    Good question, stevemonjar....I don't pretend to have an answer for that, as I'm only a blogger and not a ship's engineer.

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    Costa Concordia is a Concordia-class cruise ship owned and operated by Costa Cruises. She was built at Fincantieri's Sestri Ponente yards in Italy. The name Concordia was intended to express the wish for "continuing harmony, unity, and peace between European nations".

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