Wednesday Brings Grim Reminder of Chicago's Worst Tragedy

To this day, the sinking of the Eastland represents Chicago’s worst single-day loss of life

The producers of a groundbreaking new documentary argue the July 1915 capsizing of the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River was an almost forgone catastrophe on a doomed ship which never should have been loaded so heavily.

To this day, the sinking of the Eastland represents Chicago’s worst single-day loss of life. Some 844 people died on the ship that day, including 22 entire families.

“The problem was that the boat was never designed to take a lot of passengers,” says Harvey Moshman, co-producer of Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day. “It was designed by someone who only designed cargo ships.”

The program airs Thursday night at 8 p.m. on WTTW Channel 11.

Five steamships had been booked to carry employees of Western Electric to a company picnic in Michigan City that day. The Eastland was just preparing to pull from the dock when it rolled over on its port side, trapping hundreds of people below decks.

“The majority of the deaths were people who were crushed to death inside the vessel,” says Chuck Coppola, co-producer of the film. “They didn’t drown.”

The loss of life was almost unimaginable in the Chicago of 1915.

“There were 700 funerals on one day, the Wednesday after the disaster,” Moshman says. “There were so many, that the city ran out of caskets.”

Ironically, the filmmakers say, no one was ever held accountable for the tragedy.

“The owners of the ship got lucky,” Coppola says. “They engineered the venue to escape standing trial in the city of Chicago.”

Moshman argues there would have been a very different result if criminal proceedings would have been allowed to go forward in Cook County.

“The charge would have been manslaughter,” he says. “They ended up skating---they never paid a dime!”

The filmmakers filmed some scenes aboard a virtual copy of the Eastland, the SS Keewatin, in Canada. Using computer animations, they dramatically recreate the ship’s final moments.

“This was not an accident,” Coppola says. “This was a terrible miscalculation.”

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