In 1915, the “Eastland” ship capsized at the pier on Clark St. in downtown Chicago with the tragic loss of over 800 lives. There were over 2500 people on board when it sunk. The ship had been leased by the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works based in Cicero for a picnic excursion for workers and their families to Benton Harbor, Michigan. The ship, however, rolled over and capsized before leaving the dock. Although the ship had a full complement of life boats (coming shortly after the Titanic disaster), it had been modified over the years to accommodate far larger numbers of passengers and could be unstable on loading or docking. As suggested in an account by the Smithsonian magazine, the life boats and added weight on the upper decks may have, ironically, contributed to the ship’s instability. Although more died in this disaster than either the Titanic or the Lusitania, it was carrying workers and their families rather than famous passengers, perhaps contributing to its relative historical neglect.
One of the greatest disasters in Chicago history, the event also had a connection to the Southeast Side. Before the disaster, the S.S. Eastland had been moved to the Calumet Shipyard in South Chicago to be refitted to meet new Navy regulations. The father of George Kettell, a member of the Southeast Chicago Historical Society, worked at the Shipyard and obtained one of the Eastland’s port holes at the time. When George’s father passed away, the porthole remained in the family’s possession until 1993 when George donated the artifact to the museum.