Chicago Coast Guard participates in SS Eastland memorial

Written by auxiliarist Jonathan Roth

Early on the morning of July 24, 1915, 7,000 employees and guests of the Western Electric Company gathered on a wharf between LaSalle and Clark streets on the Chicago River to board five steamers heading to a company picnic in Michigan City, Ind.

One of those vessels, the SS Eastland, quickly filled to its 2,500-person capacity and prepared to leave the wharf for a four-hour journey to the picnic location. Due to a heavy stream of passengers embarking on the gangplanks, ballast water was added to the vessel to correct a list to the port side. Just as deckhands began to cast lines off, the steamer listed again and then capsized into the Chicago River, sending hundreds into the water and trapping many more below decks.

The surfmen at Station Old Chicago used life boats similar to this one during the Eastland disaster rescue operation. Photo courtesy Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

The surfmen at Station Old Chicago used life boats similar to this one during the Eastland disaster rescue operation. Photo courtesy Eastland Disaster Historical Society

Petty Officer 1st Class William E. Preston had the duty watch of Station Old Chicago that morning and was first alerted of the disaster at 7:30 a.m. He and seven other surfmen who rushed to the scene responded to what became the modern-day Coast Guard’s first major rescue operation, according to the Coast Guard Historian’s Office. Just six months prior, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Act to Create the Coast Guard,” which merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to create the modern-day Coast Guard.

When Preston and his crew arrived at the Eastland, they joined hundreds of others in the rescue and recovery efforts from the Chicago River. During the first day alone, the Coast Guard rescued 84 people and recovered 570 of the 844 who perished. At least 1,656 passengers survived the ordeal.  

Petty Officer 3rd Class Brennen Coles (left) and Seaman Nicholas Konopka place a bouquet of flowers in the Chicago River in remembrance of the 98th anniversary of the SS Eastland disaster, July 24, 2013. The SS Eastland capsized on the Chicago River in 1915 with more than 2,500 passengers on board. 844 people perished in one of the United States' worst maritime disasters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Auxiliarist Jonathan Roth.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Brennen Coles (left) and Seaman Nicholas Konopka place a bouquet of flowers in the Chicago River in remembrance of the 98th anniversary of the SS Eastland disaster, July 24, 2013. The SS Eastland capsized on the Chicago River in 1915 with more than 2,500 passengers onboard, killing 844, making it one of the nation’s worst maritime disasters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by auxiliarist Jonathan Roth

Ever since its maiden voyage in 1903, the Eastland frequently suffered from instability due to design flaws. A high center of gravity and top-heaviness made the ship prone to listing, which occurred during boarding of the vessel on the morning of July 24, 1915. Additionally, the Eastland’s ballast system was slow to react in changes to weight distribution and had no side-to-side transfer. These factors, along with a ship filled to absolute capacity or even overcapacity, were probable causes of the fateful capsize.

Station Old Chicago is still in service to this day. Now known as Coast Guard Station (small) Chicago, it is a seasonal detachment falling under the command of Station Calumet Harbor and shares the location with the Chicago Police Marine and Helicopter Unit, Chicago Fire Department and Illinois Conservation Police.

Ninety-eight years later, the Eastland Disaster Historical Society invited the Coast Guard again to participate in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the disaster on the same spot in the Chicago River. A boatcrew aboard a 25-foot Response Boat–Small from Station (small) Chicago placed flowers in the water and gave a salute in memory of those lost in the disaster.

Ted Wachholz, executive director of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, addresses members of the public during a memorial ceremony in Chicago marking the 98th anniversary of the Eastland disaster, July 24, 2013. The SS Eastland capsized on the Chicago River in 1915 with more than 2,500 passengers on board. 844 people perished in one of the United States' worst maritime disasters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Auxiliarist Jonathan Roth.

Ted Wachholz, executive director of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, addresses members of the public during a memorial ceremony in Chicago marking the 98th anniversary of the Eastland disaster, July 24, 2013. The SS Eastland capsized on the Chicago River in 1915 with more than 2,500 passengers onboard, killing 844, making it one of the nation’s worst maritime disasters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by auxiliarist Jonathan Roth

“The Coast Guard has been a huge part of our efforts every year,” said Ted Wachholz, executive director of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society. “Since 2003, they’ve partnered with us to do what is easily the most touching part of the commemoration. Regularly, there are people who well up with tears when the Coast Guard lays the flowers in the water.”

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society has already begun plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster on July 24, 2015.

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