On the gray, cloudy, and rainy Saturday morning of July 24, 1915, thousands of eager employees of Hawthorne Works and their family members, along with Chicago citizens who did not work for the company, flocked to downtown Chicago. They were to embark on the Hawthorne Club’s Fifth Annual Picnic for a day of parades, games, contests, and relaxation in Michigan City, Indiana. The first of five ships to leave was the S.S. Eastland, located at docks between Clark and LaSalle Streets, and by six forty-five in the morning, approximately 5,000 people were waiting to board the ship. However, by seven-thirty in the morning, this day of fun and laughter had turned into a scene of chaos, death, and despair when the Eastland capsized in the Chicago, River, killing 844 of its 2,500 passengers, which made it one of the worst naval catastrophes in American history.
Western Electric Company was one of the leading telephone and telegraph manufacturers in the world during the early twentieth century. One of its chief manufacturing plants was the Hawthorne Works, located right outside of the Chicago city limits in Cicero, Illinois. Hawthorne Works offered a variety of social activities for its employees, including the Hawthorne Club’s annual picnic excursion. The picnic committee promoted the fifth annual picnic relentlessly until the night before the excursion with parades through the Hawthorne Works and posters. The consequence of the promotions contributed to the rise of attendees from approximately 6,000 in 1914 to over 7,000 in 1915, and resulted in the need to charter five ships through the Indiana Transportation Company: the Eastland, the Roosevelt, the Petoskey, the Racine, and the Rochester.
The disaster quickly became a media sensation when newspapers immediately began to cover the rescue and relief efforts, as well as the court cases that followed.
As soon as the Eastland capsized, rescue efforts poured in from Chicago companies, the Red Cross, state and federal agencies, and Western Electric Company. The mayor of Chicago, William Hall Thompson (1915-1923 and 1927-1931), Western Electric Company, and newspapers established several monetary relief funds. Western Electric worked with local Chicago companies to set up information bureaus and temporary morgues, provided medical treatment, and gave $100,000 to pay for the funeral expenses of Western Electric employees. Overall, through the various relief efforts, over $500,000 was raised for the survivors’ and victims’ family members.
At the same time that businesses and individuals in the Chicagoland area came together to help with the rescue and relief efforts, speculations as to who was to blame and the causes of the disaster circulated around the city. The local Chicago newspapers published statements by prominent government and union leaders, such as Maclay Hoyne, the Illinois State Attorney, and Victor Olander, a union delegate leader who advocated for the American Federation of Labor, the International Seaman’s Union of America, and various other unions, placing blame and naming causes for the disaster. That led to a public outcry for justice, which encouraged the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, and the federal government to intervene and investigate the cause of the disaster. Seven investigations and court cases, at both the local and federal levels, began on the afternoon of July 24, 1915. Speculations of why the Eastland capsized was not only a debate during the investigation, but also is a debate that continues today. Some of the causes include the Eastland’s history of stabilization (which came from its poor construction), human negligence, laws that emerged after the Titanic sank, in particular the La Follette Seamen’s Act, and the overcrowding of passengers on the vessel.
On November 21, 1917, the United States Navy purchased the Eastland, rebuilt her as a naval training vessel, and renamed her the U.S.S. Wilmette. Even though the disaster is not well-remembered today, hidden beneath the weight of two world wars and other disasters, the sinking of the Eastland was imprinted onto the regional and national psyches during the early twentieth century. In addition, several local historic societies and associations are actively commemorating those who lost their lives on the tragic S.S. Eastland and making this horrific event more well-known.
To learn more about the Eastland catastrophe and to read various newspaper’s accounts of the disaster, please see the following links:
The Jasper Weekly Courier, Volume 57, Number 43, July 30, 1915
The Library of Congress’s digitization project, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, has a plethora of newspapers articles on the Eastland catastrophe. For an alternative perspective of the disaster, The Day Book, a socialist newspaper in Chicago, provides an extensive coverage of the disaster from the working class perspective. Some of the other newspapers who covered the disaster include: the Chicago Eagle (Chicago, IL), the Evening World (New York), the New York Tribune, The Sun (New York, NY), Washington Herald (Washington, D.C.), and the Washington Times (Washington, D.C.).
Adams, Stephen B. and Orville R. Butler. Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Grossman, James R., Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, eds. Michael P. Conzen, cartographic ed. The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Hilton, George W. Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Wachholz, Ted. Images of America: The Eastland Disaster. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.
Western Electric News 4, no. 6 (August 1915).