Eastland Disaster - Chicago's Best Kept Secret

Ask any Chicagoan what's this city's greatest disaster and 90% of those polled will say the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. For the most part, they'd be right. The fire raged for days, killed hundreds of people, and devastated over 3 square miles of the city. But Chicago had another disaster a few decades later that took more lives than that deadly fire.

On Saturday, July 24, 1915, 2500 employees, families, and friends of the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero, IL, boarded the elegant excursion steamer, the SS Eastland, bound for their 5th annual employee picnic in Michigan City, IN. Within minutes, 844 of those jubilant passengers died when the Eastland capsized into the Chicago River while still tethered to the dock. How could this have happened, you ask? How come I've never heard of this disaster? Or heard so little of this tragic event?

The SS Eastland is Chicago's best kept secret. But not for much longer.

This Thursday, July 24th, marks the 99th anniversary of the disaster. An annual memorial service will take place at the river near the site of the capsizing. And in a year, Chicago will commemorate her greatest loss-of-life disaster with a full weekend of memorial events.

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary, Everyday Eastland will offer news, both current and historical, about the doomed steamship, her crew, the passengers, the aftermath, the relief efforts, Western Electric Hawthorne Works, and the effects of the disaster on Cicero and Chicago. So, why me? Who am I to teach you about such things?

Born in Chicago, I grew up in the suburbs and later attended NIU in DeKalb. I taught special education to primary-aged students and worked in the business world before turning my interests toward writing. I tried my hand at picture books, then middle grade, finally finding my niche with young adult novels. Several unpublished novels later, I settled on an idea that had been swirling around my brain for years.

From childhood, I'd heard the legend of our family's connection to the big ship that rolled over in the river, killing hundreds of picnickers. The tale intrigued me and so began my interest (my family might say obsession) with the Eastland. I discovered that my paternal grandmother had a ticket to that 1915 Western Electric picnic, but the night before the big event, my great-grandmother had a premonition of danger and begged my grandmother not to go. Grandma listened to her mother's pleas and remained safely at home. That weird twist of fate changed our family's destiny, and mine. My research continued for years, my notes evolved into a novel, and soon, the Eastland became part of my everyday life.

I humbly invite you along on the journey toward the centennial. I promise to keep you posted on all upcoming events related to the commemoration. Subscribe to Everyday Eastland, stay in the loop, and in a year from now, when someone asks you what's all the fervor over some ship named Eastland, you'll be able to tell them the facts about Chicago's best kept secret.

If you're in the city on Thursday, 7/24, take your lunch at 1:00 pm and come down to the Chicago River (north bank near the LaSalle Street Bridge) to witness the annual memorial, sponsored by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society. I'll be there. Hope to see you, too.

For more information on the Eastland disaster:

Fiction 

Eastland by Marian Cheatham    http://www.amazon.com/Eastland-Marian-Cheatham/dp/1495203646

Nonfiction

Eastland, Legacy of the Titanic by George W. Hilton

The Sinking of the Eastland, America's Forgotten Tragedy by Jay Bonansinga

The Eastland Disaster by Ted Wachholz

Organizations

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society

Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Tags: disasters, history, shipwrecks

Leave a comment