Patricia Sutton - Author
Capsized! The SS Eastland Disaster-Lifeboats COST lives.
In March of 1915, three years after the RMS Titanic tragedy, Wisconsin Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollete saw his piece of legislation, The Seaman’s Act of 1915, become law. This well intentioned law was designed to save lives aboard ships by insuring enough lifeboat seating for passengers and crew. “Lifeboats for All,” was the rallying cry for this change.
St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company would comply with the new law by installing three additional lifeboats and six rafts to the hurricane deck of the Eastland. With a length of 265 feet, and a bow (width) of 38 feet, the ship was already top-heavy. Those life-saving boats added between eight and fifteen tons to the top deck of the ship weeks prior to its capsizing in the Chicago River. The extra boats allowed the company to comply with the new law, but also raise the passenger count to 2,500. More paying customers meant greater profit. July 24, 1915 would be the first time that the SS Eastland sailed with the increased capacity after those modifications had been made.
Not one of those lifeboats or rafts could be launched at the time of the capsizing, as the ship rolled over in the river while still tied to the dock. 844 people, mostly women and children, would die that day. Many were trapped below deck or drowned in the river.
The intention of the Seaman’s Act of 1915 was to save lives. In the case of the SS Eastland, and by virtue of the additional weight added to top deck of the ship, “Lifeboats for All” was just one of several factors that contributed to the worst loss of life on the Great Lakes.