On July 24, 1915, the steamer Eastland, docked on the Chicago River, was boarded by 2,500 happy excursionists from the Western Electric Company. They were bound for Michigan City, Indiana and a day of music and picnicking. The improperly ballasted ship suddenly pitched on its side as it prepared to leave its river berth.
Jack Billow, and alert deckhand on the steamer Theodore Roosevelt, immediately put a lifeboat into the water. Hundreds of people were “screaming and crying, waving their arms…we rowed to the capsized ship where we helped people from the water and saw them safely to shore.”
Most victims were trapped below deck. As rescuers and survivors scrambled on the hull of the overturned ship, the grim work of trying to recover the bodies began. The scene inside the hull was ghastly. A rescuer later recalled that “picnic hampers, derby hats, and vacuum bottles bobbled alongside the bodies.”
Thousands of people rushed to the Chicago River as news of the accident spread. “Mothers and fathers ranged the shore, screaming the names of their children,” one witness later recalled.
Improvised morgues were set up in the warehouses and armories near the river. For days afterward, long lines of grief-stricken Chicagoans made their way through these building trying to identify lost loves ones. Many who boarded the Eastland were never found, although officials put the loss total at more than 800 dead.