The Maritime Safety Law That Killed Hundreds Of People

“Through the black night and driving rain / A ship is struggling, all in vain, / To live upon the stormy main;— / Miserere Domine!” —Adelaide Anne Procter, “The Storm”

In A Nutshell

In the wake of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the US passed the Seamen’s Act which required ships to be fitted with adequate lifeboats. The passenger ship SS Eastland was retrofitted to accommodate the lifeboats, but this added more weight to the already top-heavy vessel. The inevitable disaster that followed ironically killed more passengers on Eastland than on the Titanic, in a catastrophe not out on the open sea, but on an urban river, a mere stone’s throw from the dock.

The Whole Bushel

Launched in 1903, the steamer Eastland plied its route between Chicago and picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. It had an initial capacity of 650 people, but a design overhaul in 1913 allowed it to take on 2,500 passengers. It was then that a naval architect issued a note of warning that Eastland had structural problems that put it in danger of listing and recommended remedial measures to prevent an accident. Eastland lacked a keel and had only poorly designed ballast tanks in its hold to keep it from overturning. The modifications, which also increased the boat’s speed, made it even less balanced. Eastland behaved like a bicycle, unstable when in the dock but steady when underway.

Two close calls in 1904 and 1906 earned Eastland a reputation as a “hoodoo boat.” Now, only one factor was needed to trigger a horrific disaster—additional weight. In a tragic irony, a maritime safety law would provide the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In the aftermath of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, a “lifeboats for all” campaign was launched by international maritime officials. In March 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the LaFollette Seaman’s Act requiring ships to provide lifeboats to 75 percent of their passengers. Lawmakers never considered warnings that Great Lakes vessels were not built to hold the extra weight.

Eastland complied with the law and was equipped with a full complement of 11 lifeboats (it was designed to carry only six) and 37 life rafts of 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) each, and enough life jackets to ensure the safety of all passengers and crew. The stage was set.

On the fateful day of July 24, 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company and their families were headed out on the lake for an annual picnic. In a festive mood, 2,573 passengers and crew jammed the Eastland at its dock on the Chicago River. Bands played as friends and acquaintances greeted each other. No one seemed alarmed when the ship began to list to port. Some reports recalled that a crowd gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photograph. At 7:28 AM, Eastland listed 45 degrees. An engineer desperately attempted to stabilize the vessel by opening one of the ballast tanks. Too late. Eastland rolled over as it was moored just 6 meters (20 ft) from the wharf, in water only 6 meters deep, trapping hundreds of men, women, and children underneath the bowels of the ship. So sudden was the movement there was no time to launch the lifesaving equipment.

Some lucky passengers simply walked across the hull of the overturned vessel to reach dry land, not even getting their feet wet. But for many more, the day became a nightmare of screams and struggle against a drowning death. Onlookers on the riverfront jumped into the water to help or threw whatever they could for flotation into the mass of drowning humanity.

Rescuers were able to pull 40 people out alive. But for 844 others, nothing could be done but recover the bodies and take them to the Second Regiment Armory for identification. Twenty-two entire families had perished. Most of the dead were under the age of 25. Though more passengers died on the Eastland than on the Titanic (excluding crew), it remains an obscure event in the public’s mind. “There wasn’t anyone rich or famous onboard,” explains Ted Wacholz, president of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society. “It was all hardworking, salt-of-the-earth immigrant families.”

Show Me The Proof

History: Hundreds drown in Eastland disaster
Smithsonian: The Eastland Disaster Killed More Passengers Than the Titanic and the Lusitania. Why Has It Been Forgotten?