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Chicago Hauntings: The Ghosts Of The Eastland Disaster

CHICAGO (CBS) -- On July 24, 1915, the SS Eastland was parked along the Chicago River downtown. The steamship was supposed to be carrying passengers to an annual picnic for the Western Electric Company, located in Cicero.

The steamship was set to head east along the Chicago River to Lake Michigan, and then south to Michigan City, Indiana.

The Eastland was the first boat leaving that morning. Its capacity was about 2,300 people, though it was not clear how many were actually on board that day – Tony Szabelski of Chicago Hauntings Ghost Tours says it could have been more than 3,000 people.

"Everyone wanted to go out on the Eastland because it was the first ship scheduled to go out that day," author Jay Bonansinga told CBS 2's Vince Gerasole back in 2015. "It was such a freak accident nobody expected this giant 300-foot steel ship to go over."

With an excess of people on board moving around the vessel, the boat tipped over while still docked – trapping hundreds of people under the water line. It is not clear what happened, but when the vessel tipped, 844 people lost their lives – including 22 entire families.

Rare Eastland disaster photos discovered in newspaper's basement
A stern side view of the SS Eastland shows the decks raised out of the water Aug. 13, 1915 in Chicago. "The overturned excursion steamer Eastland yesterday was lifted to an angle of 70 degrees, and still it failed to right itself. It had been expected the boat would right itself after being raised to 45 degrees," the Tribune reported. The steamer was finally righted Aug. 14. (Chicago Tribune historical photo/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Szabelski says lot of people report to this day that from the restaurants along the river, or looking down from the Clark Street Bridge, they'll still see images – faces of people floating in the water, or hands reaching up for safety.

There are even police reports of people who look into the water from a riverfront restaurant at night. The witnesses think they see someone drowning in the river, and they'll call police.

But when police arrive, they never find anybody.

Near the site of the disaster, the Reid, Murdoch & Co. Building with its grand clock tower at 325 N. LaSalle St. – which was built as an office building and grocery warehouse and later housed Chicago municipal offices for many years – is also considered to be haunted. Numerous makeshift morgues were set up after the Eastland disaster, and one of them was in the building.

"When you get so many people dying in such a short amount of time, the downtown morgues do not have space to hold all these bodies," Szabelski said.

People who work in the Reid Murdoch building – especially after hours – report seeing shadow figures moving down the hallways, Szabelski said. They will also hear sounds coming from rooms above them where nobody should be, and they report seeing lights flickering on and off and doors slowing creaking open and slamming shut.

Reid Murdoch Center
The Reid Murdoch Center. (Credit: CBS 2)

Szabelski used to give a walking ghost tour for which participants would sit on some steps facing the building at night. He would point out that people reported seeing lights flickering on and off – and lo and behold, a tour participant would see lights flickering in a window in the building that very second.

But the Reid Murdoch building was not the primary building pressed into service as a temporary morgue. That duty went to the Second Regiment Armory at 110 N. Carpenter St. at Washington Boulevard, in the West Loop.

Rare Eastland disaster photos discovered in newspaper's basement
The Second Regiment Armory, on Washington Boulevard, served as a temporary morgue for victims of the SS Eastland steamship disaster July 24, 1915 in Chicago. (Chicago Tribune historical photo/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The Second Regiment Armory in turn later became Harpo Studios, where Oprah Winfrey taped her talk show for many years.

Harpo Studios
The old Harpo Studios building. (Credit: CBS 2)

Initially, Winfrey said she did not know the history of the building, but a lot of her staff – and she herself – would claim to have a lot of experiences in it. They would hear such sounds as ghostly children playing up and down the hallways of the building, and there was one women's restroom where they would hear the sound of a woman sobbing.

The night watchman at the building would also hear crashing sounds. But an investigation into the origins of the crash would turn up nothing.

Security cameras at the building also captured what looked like a woman in an old-time gray dress – and Winfrey nicknamed the woman the "gray lady." She did several episodes of her show dedicated to the Eastland Disaster and its victims.

The building was later demolished to make way for the new McDonald's corporate headquarters.

On the 100th anniversary of the Eastland Disaster in 2015, a lot of paranormal investigators descended on both the old armory site in the West Loop and the area around the Clark Street Bridge and the Reid Murdoch building. The paranormal investigators were using some special recording devices that they put down in the water.

"They got some answers to some of the questions they were asking, like, you know, 'Were you on the Eastland?' Yeses and things like that. They also got some recordings of what sounded like gibberish sounds. But when they put those recordings through some software, they actually turned out to be words in the Czech language – and a lot of the employees of Western Electric were Czech immigrants," Szabelski said.

In another interesting tidbit, George "Papa Bear" Halas was supposed to be on the Eastland that morning. He had family that worked for Western Electric, and he also worked there himself briefly as a summer intern. But he claimed he was running a little bit late and he would have missed the boat – and planned to catch the next boat.

Video produced by Blake Tyson. Written story by Adam Harrington.

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