Eastland Disaster

Read about Mercy Home’s role in providing care for those affected by the Eastland Disaster.

Undeterred by a light rain that fell on this day, 102 years ago, about 5,000 family members of Western Electric employees gathered by the Chicago River to board five excursion boats. The vessels had been chartered to ferry passengers across Lake Michigan to a site in Indiana for a company picnic.

As the first of the ships to board reached its capacity of 2,500 and prepared to leave the wharf, it suddenly rolled over onto its side. The SS Eastland came to rest on the river’s muddy floor just 20 feet below the surface, trapping hundreds. In the end, 844 men, women, and children perished, including entire families. In terms of fatalities, it was the single greatest disaster in Chicago’s history (nearly triple the number killed in the Great Chicago Fire), and the 16th greatest disaster in U.S. history.

The September 1915 issue of our Waifs Messenger magazine opened with a reflection and remembrance for the victims, and described how the tragedy had struck close to home. “The uncertainty of life was brought to our attention as no writer or preacher could present it, when the pleasure boat ‘Eastland’ capsized in the Chicago River while still tied to its dock.”

The Home’s president at the time, Rev. Centennial J. Quille, witnessed firsthand the horrific aftermath after he and many of the city’s clergy members rushed to the scene. “As poor victims were brought out of the hold they were first laid before the priests who gave conditional absolution and administered extreme unction with the short form. Sights that have left an indelible mark in one’s memory were many and the anguish and suffering of those searching for loved ones pitiful to behold.”

The Waifs Messenger counseled that we should never take any day as guaranteed: “Make use of the means God has given you that you may be strong and safe, no matter what manner of death may be your lot.”

The article concluded by asking for prayers for all the victims of the disaster of July 24, 1915, but especially, “for a lad of fourteen who is with us; he lost father, mother and 18-year-old sister on the Eastland. Two little brothers besides himself make up the family that remains. Our lad must be father and mother to the two youngsters. We intented to prepare him for his responsibilities.”

Today, 102 years later, Chicagoland and Mercy Home remember all the victims of the Eastland Disaster.

130th Anniversary Stories

To celebrate Mercy Home’s 130th anniversary, we’re posting each week for the 13 weeks leading up to our Anniversary Celebration to share stories from our history. Stay tuned to read more from the past 13 decades of Mercy Home!

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