Water is a powerful attractant for paranormal activity. The Chicago River refuses to give up the souls it gathered in the early 20th century in one of the worst maritime tragedies in the city’s history.
Morning broke into rainy sunlight the day of the Western Electric Company’s annual picnic on July 24, 1915. An early morning boarding onto the chartered passenger liner, Eastland, and others for the event had swelled the crowd into the thousands on Wacker Drive, between the Clark and LaSalle Street bridges along the Chicago River. Anxious for a day of food, music, and sporting events, employees and their families welcomed the chance to sail on the luxury liner known as ‘The Greyhound of the Lakes’ on their way to Michigan City, Indiana.
The Eastland, recently outfitted with more lifeboats after the Titanic disaster and the enactment of the LeFollett’s Seaman’s Act, was even unsteadier than usual. Reports in the past of the liner being top-heavy, and listing badly enough to take in water via the gangways in 1903, had resulted in redesigning the ship but questions remained. The new addition of lifeboats and several tons of concrete laid on the ‘tween deck and the main deck to shore up the rotting wood on the decks now made the listing even more pronounced – especially when passengers crowded the upper decks. While the Eastland filled to her capacity of 2,572 people that morning, the ship started to rock in its watery cradle.
Excited families began to board at 6:30am, while the Eastland began to tip toward the dock. The order was sent below for the port ballast tanks to be filled and steady the ship as more people made their way onto the decks. Ten minutes later, the Eastland was again steady. At 6:53am, the ship began to tilt toward the port side, and was righted by the crew but the ship filled to capacity quickly. The ship listed once more until at 7:20am, water began to fill through openings in the lower port side of the Eastland. Passengers rushed to the side to watch, making the boat tip farther, apparently enjoying the sensation and not worried as they watched items slide across the deck. Another ship chartered for the picnic could be heard playing “I’m on My Way to Dear Old Dublin Bay,” nearby, as the morning’s impending disaster became a reality.
At 7:28am, the ship had a list of 45 degrees. While passengers still crowded the port side to wave at a passing Chicago fireboat, the liner tipped completely to its side and came to rest on the river bottom, 20 feet below the surface. Some passengers were able to pull themselves to safety and stood atop the starboard hull of the great ship, ready to use a nearby tugboat, the Kenosha, as a bridge to the dock. Others who had been on the top deck were flung into the water and trying to stay afloat in the river’s strong currents as panic overcame the scene and rescue boats rushed to pull victims from the river.
Many of the ship’s early passengers had moved below to one of the three other decks to accommodate those still boarding. Trapped as furniture, including pianos, chairs and bookcases, crushed them against each other, most of the victims are believed to have died of suffocation – not drowning – though by the time the rescuers were able to reach them by cutting holes in the metal hull, those who survived the initial rollover had drowned.
Rescue efforts began immediately, though with bodies littering the water it soon became a recovery mission. As the dead piled up along the wharf after being plucked from the river, the city decided to establish the Second Regiment Armory on Washington Boulevard as a makeshift morgue for unidentified bodies. Corpses stretched out in rows of 85 along the wet floors awaiting identification from friends and family left behind. The process of claiming the dead took a few days since 22 entire families had been killed and no one left to bring them home.
The death toll of the disaster totaled 844 lives. Eight hundred forty-one people were passengers, two from the crew, and one rescuer from another ship chartered for the occasion that died in the effort to save as many lives as possible.
An inquiry into the deaths on board the Eastland blamed faulty ballast tanks and their inability to right the ship as capacity was reached but others felt the addition of the lifeboats had tipped the scales, dooming an already top-heavy ship into certain failure. It wasn’t a matter of “if” as much as “when.”
Since the Eastland tragedy, paranormal activity haunts the river and the surrounding area. There have been reports of sudden large surges of water overtaking the river walk area of lower Wacker Drive, much like the power the water would have been displaced while the Eastland tipped over. Visitors have also reported hearing screaming and loud splashes of water by the Clarke Street Bridge but only encounter a quiet river when they check to see if anyone needs help. More disturbing are accounts of people having lunch at one of the many cafes along the walk only to find the faces of tortured souls staring back from the depths of the Chicago River. I wouldn’t stick around for dessert.
The armory where the bodies were taken is also the scene of a residual haunting. Now the studio headquarters of HARPO Productions and Oprah Winfrey, visitors and employees have witnessed hearing children laughing, music, whispering voices and heart wrenching sobbing throughout the building as well as an apparition they have dubbed the “Grey Lady”. An army of footsteps echoes throughout the lobby staircase while doors often slam shut by unseen hands.