What Chicagoan isn’t familiar with the annual “dying green” of the Chicago River for St. Patty’s Day? It’s a tradition that we all cherish. The actual dying process is carried out with ceremonial precision and with great concern for the environment. Of course, we all know the green dye isn’t permanent and in a few days our beloved river will once again return to a normal dark blue.
But in 1915, the Chicago River was not blue or green or anything approaching normal. It was a filthy, disease-ridden gray. At that time, the river was bordered on each side by North and South Water Streets. (Construction on Wacker Drive along the south riverbank would not begin until 1925). Produce and poultry markets had been established along both Water Streets. These markets received goods from the steamships that traversed the Great Lakes daily. These same markets also tossed their refuge of rotten fruit and discarded chicken heads directly into the river. Street sweepers would deposit their loads of horse manure right into the water. Slaughter houses along the south branch considered the Chicago River to be their own private, all-purpose dump.
Michael McCarthy, author of Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America describes the situation:
The filth of the city and the machinery all along its banks left the river slick, kaleidoscopic with oil. The river became an occasional cauldron. It sometimes combusted. Across the surface of the twisting Chicago River on any given night, one could see blue flames dancing.
A severe storm in 1885 caused the Chicago River, which flowed into Lake Michigan, to flood the lake with sewage, pollution, even dead cats. Something had to change. Plans were made to reverse the flow of the river by dredging out an immense canal, which was completed in 1900.
Despite the fact, the flow of the Chicago River had been reserved by the time of the Eastland disaster in 1915, the river water was still not sanitary. Not by any means. According to the American Public Works Association, that storm of 1885 caused a citywide epidemic of cholera, typhoid, and dysentery that killed an estimated twelve percent of Chicago’s 750,000 residents. Thirty years later, the then-residents of city had not forgotten that horror.
When the Eastland capsized, sending hundreds upon hundreds of Western Electric picnickers into that plague-ridden river, the public outcry was fierce. The Chicago Department of Health and the Western Electric Company acted swiftly. According to the Eastland Disaster Historical Society:
At 11:00 a.m., the Department of Health issued a statement to the city press, warning anyone that comes in contact with river water to seek anti-typhoid treatment. Many who survived the tragedy became sick after swallowing the filthy river water, and the Chicago Department of Health was crucial in administering hundreds of inoculations for typhoid fever.
George W. Hilton in his book, Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic, tells us: The medical staff at Hawthorne inoculated over 200 people against typhoid.
This swift action on the part of the city and Western Electric prevented another deadly epidemic from occurring. Again.
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According to my countdown clock, we have 69 days till the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Eastland disaster. Three free public ceremonies have been planned along with several ticketed events sponsored by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society. For a schedule of events and details on purchasing tickets, please visit: www.eastlandDisaster.org
Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America by Michael McCarthy www.amazon.com/Ashes-Under-Water-Eastland-Shipwreck/dp/0762793287
Eastland, a novel by Marian Cheatham www.amazon.com/Eastland-Marian-Cheatham/dp/1495203646
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