100 years ago this week, the Eastland excursion boat capsized in the Chicago River before it had even left the dock, killing 844 in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history. If I could have shifted my Chicago trip by a week, I would have loved to participate in some of the memorial events. The heroine of one of my novels-in-progress experiences the Eastland disaster as a young woman, and remains affected by it the rest of her life.
Most of the passengers were employees of Western Electric Company and their families, en route to a company picnic across Lake Michigan at Michigan City, Indiana. They were dressed in picnic finery circa 1915: three-piece suits and bowler hats, fancy dresses with multiple layers of petticoats, etc–all of which not only inhibited swimming but, in fact, acted as weights when waterlogged. While only mere feet away from the dock, many victims were trapped below decks and suffocated, or simply could not swim.
Family lore says that one of my great-uncles, an employee of Western Electric at that time, was supposed to be on the excursion but was detained and, quite literally, missed the boat.
The Eastland Disaster Historical Society has done a commendable job of chronicling the events of the disaster, the people involved, and the aftermath.
For decades the disaster was given scant attention in Chicago. I’ve known several lifelong Chicagoans who claimed never to have heard the story. Glad that’s being rectified now.