By Aaron Rose
The year was 1915.
Western Electric Company was one of the largest single manufacturing works in the United States. Its 2.5 million square foot facility produced equipment for a rapidly growing technology: the telephone.
More than 18, 000 men and women entered its massive Hawthorne Works complex at the corner of 22nd Street and Cicero Avenue, six days a week in round-the-clock shifts. It was a distinctly modern enterprise, claiming its own factory town. So thoroughly did the company embrace its ethic that employees, in all positions, in all weathers, were required to dress in formal attire for work. Suits and ties for the gents; corsets for the ladies.
Like all good corporations, Western Electric organized an array of social and educational societies for the recreation and edification of its workforce—the majority of whom were Eastern European immigrants, Poles and Czechs—who were becoming acculturated to a new world, a new society.
The Hawthorne Club organized the company picnic: a day-long excursion to Michigan City, Indiana by steamer to enjoy all manner of land and water sports, as well as dancing, music making, and parades.
Employees had to pay for the pleasure of attending. The price of a ticket was one dollar for adults and seventy-five cents for children—no small sum for people making fifteen-to-twenty dollars per week. But in 1915, employees worked a mandatory six-day week, and the day off was a cause for celebration.
Because of the size of the picnic, several steamboats were chartered to transport the revelers and, in 1915, because the numbers had swelled to 7,500, another, larger ship, the S.S. Eastland, was added. The twelve-year-old boat—275 feet long, thirty-eight feet at its beam or width—was renowned for its size and speed. It was also renowned, among some former passengers, industry insiders and inspectors, for its history of problems. The ship had nearly capsized on another July morning in 1904.
On July 24, 1915, this was far from the minds of the picnickers, the boat’s owners and its captain. Minutes before its intended departure time and minutes before the last of the 2,500 passengers ran past guards to jump on board and join his friends, the Eastland began to list dangerously to port. Still docked on the south bank of the Chicago River just west of the Clark Street Bridge, the ship suddenly rolled over, with one dull thud, onto its side, throwing hundreds of passengers into the unspeakably fetid water of the Chicago River and trapping hundreds more in the bowels of the ship.
The passengers were mostly young people—single men and women, and families with young children, all dressed in the elaborate, buttoned costumes of early twentieth century finery, including those collars and corsets, which immediately became like lead suits in the water, impossible to shed. Scores were crushed by the weight of other passengers, or by furniture or equipment, when the boat was upended. Others died in the desperate stampede to flee. They suffocated; they drowned. Within minutes, hundreds were dead. It took only an hour for 842 passengers and two crew members to die.
The scope of the tragedy was unparalleled in Chicago history; the other, earlier public disaster, the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903, had killed nearly 600 people. And though more passengers died on the Eastland than on the Titanic (when adding crew members who perished on the Titanic, there were more total deaths), the event has largely vanished from collective memory, even of Chicagoans. The cause of the disaster was apparent—the poorly designed ship was dangerously top-heavy, its hull ill-configured and ballast system inadequate and slow. But no one, not the ship’s owners, nor the captain, nor inspectors, was ever held accountable in the ensuing trial for the deaths, economic hardship or immeasurable emotional suffering of survivors. No official monetary awards, except from Western Electric, were ever made to the families of victims.
The event, however, is still alive in the memories of descendants of people who perished or survived, and who aided both.
One family, sisters Sue Decker and Barb Decker Wachholz, and Barb’s husband, Ted Wachholz, founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society in the late 1990s to remember the tragedy and honor its victims and survivors. Barb and Sue’s grandmother, Borghild or “Bobbie” Aanstad, her widowed mother, Marianne, Uncle Olaf, and younger sister, Solveig, survived in an air pocket inside the boat, treading water for more than eleven hours before being rescued. Bobbie recalled her mother’s fears when they settled in for the excursion. Marianne, the daughter of a sea-faring Norwegian, murmured over and over, “I don’t like the feel of this boat.” And then, “there are too many people on this boat!”
Reaching for a rainbow one century later, the Eastland Disaster Historical Society held the first official commemorative events over the weekend of July 24-26, including two public ceremonies at the Chicago Riverwalk Theater, to honor the lives of victims of the disaster. The synchronicity of the location was remarkable. The Riverwalk Theater, directly across from the Reid Murdoch Building, is precisely the site where passengers boarded the Eastland and where it overturned.
On Friday afternoon, the Riverwalk Theater was filled to capacity, mostly with families of survivors and rescuers. The Coast Guard, Chicago Police Department and Chicago Fire Department, all of whom served as first responders to the disaster, were represented in small boats that floated together on the river in the afternoon sunlight. Wreaths were placed in the water and the solemnity and dignity of the gathering created a sense of peace in a place that had held a horrific, terrifying event. A public art installation is planned for the Riverwalk, designed to honor the children, women and men who perished that day.
The anniversary is also being recognized with a commemorative beer, “The 844,” brewed by Ale Syndicate Brewers. Each bottle features a “neck tag,” designed by 88 Brand Partners who provided pro-bono creative services, with one of nine stories of people connected with the Eastland Disaster. A portion of proceeds from the sale of the beer will benefit the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.
For more information about the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, visit eastlanddisaster.org.