One of the most devastating, and haunting, tragedies to strike Chicago would be the capsizing of the EASTLAND steamer on July 24, 1915, between the Clark and LaSalle Street bridges. Although it had only just departed the dock when the tragedy occurred, the steamer was bound for Michigan City, Indiana where a picnic had been planned for the workers of “Western Electric” and their families. There were four vessels chartered to take the estimated 7,000 people on their journey across the lake. One of these vessels was the EASTLAND, a rusting Lake Michigan steamer owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company. It was supposed to hold a capacity crowd of 2,570 but it is believed that at least 3,200 were on board. Besides being overcrowded, the vessel had a reputation for being notoriously unstable.

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The EASTLAND was moored on the south side of the river and after the passengers were loaded on board, the dock lines were loosed and the ship prepared to depart. What followed was a nightmare....

The overflow crowd, dressed in their best summer attire, even on this drizzly morning, jammed onto the decks, waving handkerchiefs and calling out to those still on shore. The ship eased away from the dock and immediately began to list to the post. As more passengers pushed toward that side of the deck, the boat tilted dangerously. What the passengers were unaware of was that the crew of the steamer had emptied the ballast compartments (designed to provide “stability” for the craft) so that more passengers could be loaded aboard. This would be the undoing of the EASTLAND... as moments later, the ship simply toppled over!

The passengers above deck were thrown into the water and the river became a moving sea of bodies. Crews on the other boats threw life preservers into the river, while onlookers began throwing lines, boxes and anything else that would float to the floundering passengers. To make matters more difficult, the river was now surging, thanks to the wake caused by the overturned ship. Many of the luckless passengers were pulled beneath the water by the current, or swamped by the crashing waves.

Worst of all was the fate of those passengers who had remained inside of the ship when it had departed. These unlucky victims were first thrown to one side of the ship as it turned over and then they were covered with water as the river rushed inside. A few of them managed to escape to the upturned end of the ship, but most didn’t, becoming trapped in a tangled heap at the lowest point of the EASTLAND.

Firefighters and rescue workers arrived within minutes and began cutting holes in the wood above the water line and in the steel hull below it. In the first fateful minutes, a number of passengers managed to escape, but soon, it was simply too late. The rescue workers had to resign themselves to fishing corpses out of the water, which they wrapped in sheets and transferred to the ROOSEVELT, another vessel that had been rented for the excursion. The big downtown stores sent wagons and trucks to ferry the injured and dead to nearby hospitals and makeshift morgues. Large grappling hooks were also used to pull bodies from the water.

By late that afternoon, nearly 200 bodies had been taken to the 2nd Regiment Armory on West Washington Blvd. According to newspaper accounts, a police diver who had been hauling bodies up from the bottom of the river since mid-morning suddenly broke down and became crazed. He had to be subdued by several of his friends and fellow officers. City workers began dragging the river far south of where the ship had capsized, using large nets to stop the bodies from washing out into the lake. By the time that it was all over, 835 of the ships passengers perished, including 22 entire families.

The mystery of the EASTLAND was never solved. There was never a clear cause that could be reached that accounted for the capsizing of the vessel. Several hundred lawsuits were eventually filed but almost all of them were thrown out by the Circuit Court of Appeals, who held the owners of the steamship blameless in the disaster. The EASTLAND was later sold at public auction in December 1915. The title was later transferred to the government and it was pressed into duty as the gunboat USS WILMETTE. In 1946, it was sold for scrap metal.

But the story of the EASTLAND does not end there.....

In recent years, the armory building, where most of the dead were taken during the disaster, has been incorporated into Harpo Studios, the production company owned by Oprah Winfrey. As one of Chicago’s greatest success stories, Oprah came to Chicago in 1984 to host the WLS-TV talk show “AM Chicago”. Within a few years, she had recreated the program and it was re-named the “Oprah Winfrey Show”. She has since gone on to become the host of the most popular talk show in television history, a film star, producer and well-known personality.

But all of the success and attention that the show has brought to the former armory building has done nothing to put to rest the spirits of the EASTLAND. Many who work here claim that the ghosts of the perished passengers are still restless in the new studios. According to reports, many employees have had strange encounters that cannot be explained, including the sighting of an apparition that has been dubbed the “Gray Lady”. In addition, staff members hear whispering voices, the laughter of children, sobbing sounds, old-time music, the clinking of phantom glasses and marching of invisible footsteps. The footsteps (which sound as though they belong to a large group) are frequently heard on the lobby staircase and nearby doors often slam shut without assistance. A large number of the staff members believe this to be a very haunted place!

The site of the disaster is not without its chilling stories either. Today, the site is marked by a historical plaque, commemorating the memories of those whose lives were lost. Some say it is marked by other things as well..... namely cries of terror from the victims of the tragedy. For many years, passersby on the Clark Street Bridge claimed to hear cries and moans coming from the river, along with the bloodcurdling sound of terrified screams. Perhaps the horror of the event impressed itself on this place, where it continues to replay itself over and over again....

The EASTLAND disaster continues to be remembered, in more ways than one!

The EASTLAND disaster occurred between the Clark and LaSalle Street bridges, along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. Harpo Studios is located at 1058 West Washington Blvd.