Chicago Police Officers and the sinking of the S.S. Eastland

On July 24-25, 1915, Chicago Police Officer Patrick Lally returned home from work, sank into his chair, and burst into tears. Officer Lally, soaked from both the drizzling rain and the Chicago River, had spent the weekend in rescue efforts. His family had never witnessed Lally shed one tear. Another police diver had broken down during his job, sobbing and screaming. And a fellow Chicago rescuer, a ship's Captain, would have horrific nightmares from that date. He took his experience silently to the grave. They were all involved in a massive rescue effort to save 2,752 passengers and crew from the sunken S.S. Eastland near the Clark Street Bridge, one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.

The Eastland after capsizing, July 24, 1915

The most extensive loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes began as a wonderful day despite the weather. Hawthorne Works & Western Electric employees had a day off from their six-day workweek to attend the annual company picnic. Dressed resplendently and clutching their tickets, they boarded the S.S. Eastland early, unable to contain the excitement. The fancy liner would smoothly sail Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana, for a day in the park. At 6:30 a.m., the passengers' animated sounds were filling the air hurrying up the gangplank for the best spot. At 7:30 a.m., the air filled with their screams for help and cries of the dying.

By 7:10 a.m., the ship was already listing away from the dock. The passengers' jabbering, most in their native language – the majority were Czechs – could be heard at the pier; it was only 20 feet away. The gangplank finally lifted at 7:18. The ship had settled to its rightful position. Five minutes later, the overcrowded Eastland listed again. Police officers on the dock noted the ship's change as they remained on scene, finished with passenger crowds. Officers witnessed the Eastland loll away from the pier, and it kept rolling. The excited jabbering became louder. The Eastland was falling as the Chicago River spilled into the portholes.  Officers listened to the crash of pianos, furnishings, and various items down below. In minutes, all that remained of the Eastland was her great hull. She sank in 20 feet of water. 

Police officers and nearby citizens jumped to the rescue. Able passengers squirmed away from the wreckage and hurried across the hull. Ships, rowboats, even canoes came chugging and skimming to the rescue. People jumped into the water to be pulled to safety. 

Those drowning under the ship were not the only concern. People on the streets rushed the dock to watch in horror. Some fell into the water. Police officers arrived, called for crowd control. The Chicago police officers in their horse-drawn trucks could not drive through, no matter how loud they shouted for space. As the police on dock formed a human chain to shove the crowd back, those who were free dove into the water or leaped to the hull, their boots sliding on the wet, slimy surface. These officers were in danger as well - Officer William Ryan broke his leg as he was helping people scramble off the Eastland. 

The screams could be heard for city blocks. At the site of the tragedy the cries drowned out rescue attempts. 

A group of welders working on a project nearby came racing over, their equipment clanging and jouncing in tough, work-calloused hands. They immediately set to work cutting holes in the hull. Seconds counted. People were suffocating under the capsized ship. 

Then came a cry. "They're ruining my ship! Order them to stop!" Eastland Captain Harry Pederson came shoving through the survivors as they limped and crawled to safety. He commanded the officers to stop the welders.  Now forced to scream over the angry shouts from the onlookers: "They're ruining it!" Pederson grabbed at the welders. Officers arrested the enraged Captain. "Take him out of here!" A commanding officer ordered, knowing that if they kept the Captain here, he would indeed be attacked by an angry mob that was already calling for Pederson's blood. 

"They're ruining my ship!" Eastland Captain Harry Pederson (holding coat). 

One of the welders had sweat and tears streaming down his rough, dirty cheeks. His wife and two children were on the passenger list. He and his coworkers assisted choking, limp passengers out of the hull, handing them off to police officers and volunteers. Volunteers carried many. The welder reached for each shaking hand to pull the living up into the air, each time hoping … Later, he would find his family in the morgue.

By 8:00 a.m. on July 25, most living passengers were saved. Police divers went into the murky water. They surfaced holding mostly the bodies of babies and children. 

A traffic patrolman, Walter P. Brooks, was just one of the policemen who spent 20 hours in the Chicago River rescuing people and removing the 844 dead passengers: 228 teenagers, 58 infants & toddlers. 70% of the dead were under 25 years old.  Twenty-two entire families lost. Many families lost their only breadwinners. The horse-drawn trucks driven by Chicago police officers dutifully carried the dead to makeshift morgues. Bodies laid in rows of 95. Officers remained stalwart, listening to the wails of anguish as the living identified their loved ones.

S.S. Eastland in Cleveland, c. 1911 

No one knows how many passengers the rescuers saved. There would be a legal battle much later. The Eastland had a history of stability problems. Documents proved she had changed ownership, dry docked for numerous repairs, and was not deemed safe for July 24, 1915. She was overloaded that day with safety gear all stored on the top deck and too many passengers. But senior management knew dry docking meant a loss in ticket sales, and Eastland had already cost money by being out of commission so often. The famous attorney Clarence Darrow represented the Eastland owners, crew, and engineers in the court case. He won his case, and the Eastland representatives walked away. The company did award the survivors compensation. The Eastland was recovered, repaired, used in the navy, and later scrapped. 

A memorial plaque now stands at the corner of Wacker Drive and LaSalle Street in Chicago. The Chicago police officers who risked their lives, worked tirelessly and unselfishly to save people, and assist with the deceased are gone. Like so many officers before them, and still, they masked their feelings to keep the peace and enforce law and order. Some conserved in photographs, the anguish of the day in their eyes. 

A Chicago police officer looks on at rescue efforts. 



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S.S. Eastland in Cleveland, c. 1911 public domain. Detroit Publishing Co. collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.


View of Eastland from fire tug. By Max Rigot Selling Company, Chicago - Set of 6 Penny postcard supplied by Kathe Kaul Estate Sales of Kansas City, MO, Public Domain,


Police officers- no information. From multiple sources.