I discovered the Eastland when I was 26 years old. It was 1999 and I was curating an exhibition about the Titanic at the Museum of Science and Industry. As a native Chicagoan and local history buff, the discovery was a shock in more ways than one. In my head, and in my heart, I was 26 years behind schedule and 84 years too late.
On July 24, 1915, the S.S. Eastland was docked at the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle streets. One of five excursion vessels chartered by the Western Electric Company for their annual company picnic, the boats were to take thousands of employees from downtown Chicago to fair grounds in Michigan City, Indiana. Men, women and children were dressed to the nines and many were eager to board the Eastland, the latest and greatest vessel dubbed the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes.”
As a light rain fell upon the city that morning, an atmosphere of pure joy soon turned to nothing but horror and tragedy. The Eastland, later discovered to be a poorly engineered and top-heavy vessel, rolled over onto its side while still docked on the river. 844 people ultimately lost their lives by being crushed to death, drowning, or being sucked into small compartments of the ship. Twenty-two whole families perished and many were left widowed, childless, or orphaned. By pure numbers of lives lost, the Eastland Disaster stands as Chicago’s greatest tragedy.
I “discovered” the Eastland story because of a small organization called the Eastland Disaster Historical Society. The founders were made up of two granddaughters of a survivor and one of their husbands. They had pulled together a 501c3 to try and educate the world about their personal connection but, more importantly, about a greater world tragedy that people had miraculously forgotten all about.
The more and more I learned from them, the more and more I felt lost and numb. Numb because I had never learned about this tragic event in school nor in any history book. Numb because I soon learned that none of the survivors or families of those lost ever saw any reparations. Numb because, as a Chicagoan, it’s not a tale we are told as readily as the Fire or that of the Fair. Why, why, why?
Over the past 15 years that the Eastland has been part of my life, I’ve grown slightly (more like ridiculously) obsessed. That Titanic exhibition ended up including a section about the Eastland that the Chicago Tribune reported as being the highlight of the whole darn thing.
Ever since, I’ve spent those 15 years researching and learning more and more and more. The Eastland Disaster Historical Society grew so tired of my poking and prodding that they just finally asked me to be a part of their Board of Directors. I have that effect on people.
At its core, I think my obsession lies in the fact that I am just completely enamored of all things Chicago and this is one thing, one event, one story, that completely escaped my radar and my grasp. And the people. And their stories. What about their stories? When you think about it, those 844 people were all blue collar immigrants from Eastern Europe. Poor non-English speaking laborers. Who cares about them, right? I really like to think that people aren’t cold-hearted and that they wouldn’t just forget about every Olaf, Gustav or Borghild that died because of their immigrant nature. This is Chicago after all and we are a city built on immigrants.
So why is this a lost Chicago story?
As I’ve researched and learned my guess is that because the tragedy happened so fast, our whole city ultimately went through a type of post traumatic stress disorder and no one - not one soul - wanted to acknowledge that 844 people could die within feet of safety in a matter of 20 minutes. Impossible. But no, totally possible.
The sad part and the facts: At 7:33 a.m. on July 24, 1915, a top heavy excursion vessel slowly rolled over while docked at the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets. In the end, 844 people died. Beyond that, thousands of people were impacted in some way, shape or form. After that, their families never saw any resolve. And after that, the majority of future era Chicagoans would never know of their fight, loss, story, struggle, or tragedy.
This event happened 99 years ago today. We can never change our past, but we can certainly remember it. We can certainly learn from it. And we can certainly honor it. Let's do that today. However you wish, please let's be Chicago and do that today.