The S.S. Eastland was a passenger ship based in Chicago, and used for tours. On July 24, 1915, the Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, The Teddy Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take employees from Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. This was a major event in the lives of the workers, as many had never taken a holiday. Many of the passengers on the Eastland were Czech-Bohemian immigrants from Cicero, Illinois.
The Eastland was commissioned in 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and early on it was found that the ship had design problems, making it susceptible to listing. It was top heavy; its center of gravity was too high, especially when a large number of passengers congregated on the upper decks. In 1903, the Eastland listed so bad the water flowed up one of the gangplanks. The situation was quickly ratified but it was only the first of many incidents.
In 1915 the new federal Seaman's act had been passed because of the Titanic disaster. This required retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on passenger ships, including the Eastland. Ironically, this extra weight probably made the Eastland even more dangerous, as it worsened the already severe problem of being top heavy.
On the fateful morning of July 24, passengers began boarding the Eastland at about 6:30 a.m. and by 7:10 the ship had reached its capacity of 2752 passengers. The ship was packed, with many passengers standing on the open upper decks. While the passengers were boarding, the ship slowly rocked back and forth from starboard to port, but the motion of the boat did not alarm the crew.
At 7:25, the list to port became more severe. The crew attempted to stabilize the ship by admitting water into its ballast tanks, but to little avail. A refrigerator behind the bar toppled with a crash, and the passengers realized then that disaster was upon them. At 7:28 the Eastland lurched sharply to port and then rolled completely on its side, coming to rest on the bottom of the river.
Many of the passengers had already moved below decks on this cool morning, consequently hundreds were trapped by the water and the sudden rollover. Others were crushed by the heavy furniture, which included pianos, bookcases, and tables.
Although the ship was only a few feet from the wharf, and it was in only twenty feet of water, it was unfortunately deep enough to drown 844 people who were trapped below decks. Twenty-one entire families were wiped out. One of the people who were scheduled to be on the Eastland was George Halas, who went on to become the coach, and later the owner of the Chicago Bears. Halas was working temporarily at Western Electric, but was running late the morning of the disaster, and did not board the ship. After the Eastland was raised, she was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve, re-commissioned as the U.S.S. Wilmette, and commissioned as a gunboat. She was decommissioned on November 28, 1945, and sold for scrap in 1947.