The Sinking Of The Eastland by Jay Bonansinga

It was a morning to remember.  On July 24th, 1915 in downtown Chicago, over 2,000 Western Electric Employees and their families, dressed in their best and went to board the Eastland for the annual company picnic.  The Eastland was a breathtaking steamship and many came to watch as the ship loaded the excited and happy employees and families.

Then… the unthinkable happened.

The Eastland (as you will find out within the book, was never a very stable feeling ship) rolled over in the Chicago river, trapping many of those on board within its body.  The woman, who were dressed in high boots, jewelery, large skirts, and over coats, became human anchors.  Men were said to have trampled children, and shoved aside women in the panic to escape. 

In the end, after three days of rescue attempts… 844 men, women, and children died.


The interior of the Eastland changed suddenly, as if by the dark magic of a fun house mirror.  Floors became walls, port holes became skylights, and the gigantic influx of water turned the mahogany trimmed rooms into sealed chambers worthy of Harry Houdini’s worst nightmares.

Page 72

The entire Sinclair family - all eight of them perished on the Eastland



So Sheila, why the morbid fascination with tragedy?


Well… I don’t really know – but morbid fascination seems harsh… I would say more an interest in history, and what seems to me to be important history.

I am always surprised when I find out about something like this and realize if not for certain circumstances, I may have never heard of the Eastland and its tragic demise. 

Readers of Book Journey may remember that in June of this year I went with three of my good friends to Chicago for a long girls exploratory weekend.  The plan was… there was no plan.  We would land where we landed, stay where we stay – but our destination was Chicago.

On our second day there we hopped on a double-decker tour bus and enjoyed the sights of Chicago…. at one point our tour guide stopped and showed up where this large steamliner, The Eastland, had overturned in 1915 killing 844 people. 

I was stunned.  As I looked at the spot being pointed to, I did not understand.  The ship was docked – not moving.  In still waters.  Near the bridge where many people were watching.  How did they all die?  Why were they not saved?  How does something like this happen? 

I had to know more.

Upon returning home to Brainerd I was sharing my trip experience with Lloyd Anderson.  He was familiar with the sinking of the Eastland and I mentioned to him I had to know more about this tragedy.  A couple of weeks ago, Lloyd came into my office with this book that he had checked out of the library for me.  Life had moved on for me and I had forgotten my desire to research this ship…. Lloyd had not.

The Sinking Of The Eastland traveled with me to Honduras and back.  (Yes, Brainerd Library, the book is fine).  I devoured the information inside.

Well written, and powerfully intense, I read about entire families being taken by this disaster, I learned of the divers who sent rescue teams at first into the chilly waters… that later became recovery teams instead.   I read of every day public hero’s who dove in time and again to save people (and succeeded!) and I read of scoundrels who picked the pockets of the 800+ bodies lined up on the streets waiting to be identified. 

For most of the book, I wept.

Jay Bonansinga writes a story that is at once heart wrenching and painful – he reveals mistakes that could have been avoided, and a captain that abandoned his ship.  And while all this may be perceived as a hard HARD read… it is an important one.  And you know what?  Life is hard.  All stories can not end sugary sweet and leaving you with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. 

I for one am glad I spent time this past week with The Eastlander and its occupants.  I now have a new mark on my heart… it is ship shaped.


Amazon Rating

Goodreads Review

The 2011 WHERE Are You Reading map has been updated to include The Sinking Of The Eastland


Thank you to Lloyd Anderson who borrowed this

from the Brainerd library on my behalf.

36 thoughts on “The Sinking Of The Eastland by Jay Bonansinga

  1. Wow, I hadn’t heard of this tragedy before and it was so soon after the sinking of The Titanic. I can see why this is the kind of story that stays with you. I will have to look for this book. Thanks for sharing your review!

    1. I have read many books on the Titanic as well Christina but like you, had not heard of this one. There is talk in the book that it became something Chicago did not talk about or acknowledge… my gosh – how could you not?

  2. Wow!! I’ve never heard of this tragedy, even though I’ve had family who live in Chicago for over 70 years. I’m going to check to see if my library has the book.

    Thanks for bringing the book to my attention!

  3. @Vicki – if your family wasn’t Bohemian or did not have a connection to Western Electric, maybe that is why you never heard about the Eastland Disaster. My family is all Czech and had some connection to Western Electric. We did not have anyone on the ship, but it was still discussed. So tragic and sad.

  4. You may also enjoy the reasonably decent companion book, The Eastland Disaster. Published by Arcadia Publishing in 2005, it contains over 225 images as well as dozens and dozens of first-hand, personal accounts from people who survived or witnessed the tragedy.

  5. THIS is what I like about reading .. yes, it was a tragedy … but how many of us know about it? A book honors the heroic efforts of the volunteers and rescue teams and allows the memories of those who lost their lives to live on. Wonderful review.

  6. This is a new one on me as well even though I’m a history nut and lived in a Chicago suburb years ago. I must read the book. Surely some PA library will have it so I can order on Interlibrary Loan.

  7. I have lived an hour from Chicago most of my life and have never heard of this story. That is some cover up! I am going to keep an eye out for this book! I’m off to see if our library has a copy! After reading your review, I am very curious!

  8. You always bring interesting nonfiction books to my attention that after reading your review, I need to read. This is the latest one to add to that list.

  9. I get the feeling t hat a lot of Chicagoans don’t know about the Eastland either. I knew about it because my dad worked for Western Electric and he had heard the story. Also, there is a small plaque on Wacker Drive about a block from where I used to work, probably where your tour bus paused, that I saw while out at lunch. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known exactly where it happened. There was talk at one time of creating a more extensive memorial (after all 800+ lives were lost) but I don’t think it ever happened. Correct me if I’m wrong on that because I’d like to visit it.

    1. There is a large section of Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago dedicated to the victims of the Eastland Disaster.

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