S.S. Eastland Memorial

On the 101st anniversary of the Eastland Disaster, we reflect on a memorial designed for the Chicago Riverwalk.


(100th Anniversary Eastland Commemoration)

Early on the morning of Saturday, July 24, 1915, thousands gathered on the deck of the S.S. Eastland, ready to embark on a Western Electric Company picnic excursion. Docked in the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets, the crowded ship suddenly began listing back and forth from port to starboard. After a few short minutes, the boat capsized, resting on the muddy bottom of the Chicago River, just 20 feet below. 844 lives were lost in the maritime disaster, event, representing Chicago’s greatest loss-of-life tragedy, and a major maritime disaster, with a greater passenger loss than the Titanic or Lusitania.

The Chicago Riverwalk aims to re-establish Chicago’s connection to its “second waterfront.” The Chicago River’s role has changed throughout the city’s history, but it has always been an important setting and amenity. While the Riverwalk has become a successful recreational venue, its River Theater, on the site of the Eastland Disaster, offers a place of respite and reflection. Soon after its 2015 opening, the space hosted a 100th Anniversary Commemoration, led by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

Ross Barney Architects developed several memorial concepts to take place on the site. While the decision for a permanent installation has been stalled, one idea comprised a series of light diodes representing each life lost in the event. This subtle approach added an ambiance to the public park at night while alluding to the event. Once per year, a glowing form of the location where the vessel capsized could play host to tributes.

Grounded in the history of Chicago’s development and growth, the river plays a fundamental role in our memory. If only the riverbanks could talk, the stories they would tell would captivate many and inform our collective future.

Explore more rich history on the Eastland Disaster Historical Society’s website. The next phase of the Chicago Riverwalk (North LaSalle Street to West Lake Street) is expected to open Fall 2016.