The SS Eastland was still tied to the pier about to take 2500 passengers and 70 crew members on an excursion across the southern edge of Lake Michigan to Michigan City and the dancing in the ballroom had already begun. It was all part of the fun on that July 24, 1915 when the ship started swaying side to side and dancers slid back and forth along the floor. But the last pitch didn’t stop at 35 degrees as it had earlier and instead, continued on past 40, then 45. The Eastland’s captain shouted for the gangways to be reconnected but it was too late, the boat capsized in the Chicago River, trapping many of its passengers below the deck. Though 15 feet from shore and in 20 feet of water, by the end of the rescue mission 844 bodies were recovered and 70% of those who perished were under 25.
“More people died on the Eastland than did on the Titantic,” says Patricia Sutton, author of CAPSIZED! The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster (Chicago Review Press 2018; $17.99). “90% of those who died were women and children while on the Titanic, only 10% of the dead were women and children.”
Sutton, a former Chicago public school teacher, vaguely knew about the sinking of the Eastland but mentioned the disaster to her mentor at a writer’s workshop in Pennsylvania when they were talking about possible topics for a book.
“She said you need to write that and if you don’t, I will,” recalls Sutton, who interviewed relatives of those who were aboard and read news accounts from the time to take readers into the lives of those who survived and those who didn’t. The passengers, mostly first- and second-generation Polish and Czech immigrants were the employees of Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works and the excursion was supposed to be a wonderful outing for them. Instead, says Sutton, almost every block in the Hawthorn area lost at least one person; in one block, it was every house.
Written for children ages 10-14, it’s a compelling book for even adults. Because she’s a teacher, Sutton wants Capsized not only to be an educational lesson about the times (women wore long dresses, corsets and laced up boots which made escaping from the water so much more difficult and most people didn’t swim back then) but also to stir critical thinking and questioning.
“Children ask why do we remember the Titanic and not the Eastland,” she says. “So we discuss what the reasons could be—there were famous and wealthy people onboard the Titanic while those on the Eastland were poor working class mothers and children. Also, the Eastland happened when World War I was going on and though we hadn’t entered it yet, everyone’s attention was focused on that. I also tell them that it’s important know about the Eastland and those who were on the ship.”