On the morning of July 24th, 1915, a disaster occurred that would forever solidify the existence of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago.
On the docks of the Chicago River, the Eastland steamship capsized resulting in 844 casualties and eliminating 22 entire families. The ship was chartered to carry employees of Western Electric Company and their families to the annual company picnic.
The Eastland had a preexisting reputation of being unstable and with the added lifeboats (a result of post-Titanic regulations), faulty ballast system, and other contributing factors. The ship was a disaster waiting to happen.
The ship listed more than 2,500 passengers on board and before she left the docks, capsized on her port side. Many of the causalities were due to suffocation by the large crowd and heavy objects aboard the ship.
Horrified onlookers immediately took action, and within an hour, Red Cross volunteers were on the scene acting as rescuers, medics, and counselors. This was the first disaster response for the Chicago chapter which had been organized just six weeks earlier.
After the event, Western Electric had little money to compensate the affected families. Chicago organized what might have been the city’s first disaster relief fundraiser, raising 400,000 dollars. The Red Cross supported the fundraiser and was tasked with fairly distributing the funds to the victims’ families. The Red Cross developed a relief grant algorithm, in which each situation is closely considered to determine need-based compensation. The algorithm still serves as the national model for disaster relief grant allocation.
“The disaster was unprecedented, and given that there were no documented procedures or protocols, what the Red Cross did that day was truly amazing,” said Ted Wachholz of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.
In the face of one of the worst maritime disasters in history, The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago established itself as a substantial humanitarian organization.
To learn more please visit The Eastland Disaster Historical Society at www.eastlanddisaster.org.
Written by Kamryn McPike