The Great Chicago Fire, with its transformative legacy and its fanciful legend of an irascible cow, is the event often thought of as the most epic disaster in the city’s history. It’s even sewn into our civic memory as one of four red stars positioned between two blue stripes on the municipal flag—stripes that represent the Chicago River. But it was an even greater tragedy that occurred on the river on July 24, 1915, that still bears the dark distinction of the city’s deadliest disaster.
Their spirits undampened by a light rain that morning, employees of Western Electric’s factory in Cicero and their families gathered on the wharf to board five excursion boats. The vessels had been chartered to ferry passengers across Lake Michigan to a site in Indiana for a company picnic.
The first boat scheduled to depart was the SS Eastland, known as the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes.” Many passengers hurried below deck to escape the drizzle. As the Eastland pushed just beyond its capacity of 2,500, it rolled over onto its side. Those on the upper deck were tossed into the murky water.
The fortunate among the passengers were able to walk to safety across the overturned hull. Hundreds more would be trapped in the boat’s lower decks, as it came to rest on the river’s muddy floor just 20 feet below the surface. In the end, 844 men, women and children perished, including entire families. The death toll was nearly three times that of the Chicago Fire, and was the 16th greatest disaster in U.S. history.
It wasn’t the first time the Eastland had capsized. The ship was known to be wobbly for years. Originally designed to hold 500 passengers, modifications made over time to increase its capacity rendered it especially unstable during the boarding process. In addition, a law signed in March of that year by President Wilson in response to the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier required that the boat carry more than double the amount of life boats than it was designed to hold. Other safety equipment like rafts and lifejackets—nearly all stored on the upper deck—made the boat even more top-heavy. Yet the Eastland disaster unfolded so quickly that none of the equipment was even deployed. The saved and the damned where sorted almost instantly.
The September issue of Mercy Home’s Waifs Messenger magazine that year opened with a reflection and remembrance for the victims and described how the tragedy had struck close to home. “The uncertainty of life was brought to our attention as no writer or preacher could present it, when the pleasure boat Eastland capsized in the Chicago River while still tied to its dock,” the article read.
The Home’s president at the time, Rev. Centennial J. Quille witnessed firsthand the horrific aftermath after he and six other priests from around the city rushed to the scene, by then strictly a recovery operation. “As the poor victims were brought out of the hold, they were first laid before the priests who gave conditional absolution and administered extreme unction with the short form. Sights that have left an indelible mark in one’s memory were many and the anguish and suffering of those searching for loved ones pitiful to behold.”
The writer counseled that we should never take any day as guaranteed: “Make use of the means God has given you that you may be strong and safe, no matter what manner of death may be your lot.”
The article concluded by asking for prayers for all the victims of the disaster, but especially, “for a lad of 14 who is with us; he lost father, mother and 18-year-old sister on the Eastland. Two little brothers besides himself make up the family that remains. Our lad must be father and mother to the two youngsters. We intended to prepare him for his responsibilities.”
While the Eastland claimed so many lives so suddenly and without warning, another disaster 80 years later unfolded slowly. Over the course several days in July 1995, that summer’s unprecedented heat wave would claim 739 people according to the standard estimate, mostly elderly and in poor health. However, that number has been debated and the true toll could rival that of the Eastland.
On July 13, the temperature reached 106 degrees and remained nearly as hot for five days, with very little cooling at night. The entire Midwest was wilting in the humid, stagnant air. And while there were deaths in places like St. Louis and Milwaukee, other areas did not see the wave of deaths as did Chicago, where a combination of factors led to disaster.
The physical environment was one. The concentration of paved surfaces, brick buildings and tar roofs created a ‘heat island’ effect that trapped and radiated temperatures much higher than those in rural areas. Thick humidity, no wind and urban air pollution hiked the heat index even higher.
Other factors included poverty, racial segregation and social isolation. Most of the victims were elderly and poor, living alone and in neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. Many did not own air conditioning or couldn’t afford to run it. Frequent power outages prevented relief for others. And the fear of crime outside caused many elderly residents to keep windows closed at night.
The disaster caught health and emergency systems off guard. On the second day of the heat wave, bodies began to stack up at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office faster than officials could determine why. Refrigerated trucks were brought in to handle to overflow. Emergency rooms were also pushed to the brink and first responders struggled to keep pace with calls for help.
The city has since drastically enhanced its coordinated response to heat emergencies based on the lessons learned from July of 1995.
Excellent resources can be found on the web site of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society (eastlanddisaster.org), and in Eric Klinenberg’s 2002 book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago.
Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer
who works in non-profit communications.