Eastland Memorial Society

BERWYN LIFE - July 23, 1965

by Sean O'Gara

On the upper deck a small string ensemble sparked by a mandolin played ragtime music. Below deck hundreds of passengers were stowing away lunch baskets as they gathered in small groups to talk.

Only on the main deck, where more than 1,000 were milling about, was Mike Javance, a vegetable dealer sitting on his cart on the Clark Street bridge, heard when he shouted, "Look out! The boat's turning over!"

All he got in return was jeers from the merrymakers aboard.

Two minutes later the pleasure craft Eastland was on its side in the Chicago River and the second greatest inland marine disaster in modern history had occurred. (The greatest was the sinking of the Sultana in the Mississippi River in 1865 with the loss of 1,450 lives.)

Days later, when the river had been dredged and all the known passengers who had drowned were recovered, the death toll stood at 812 - 500 of whom had been employees of the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne Works.

Whole families disappeared into the river's murky water at 7:40a.m. on July 24, 1915 - exactly 50 years ago tomorrow. Entire groups of young people representing whole city blocks suffocated in the lower decks before they could be reached by rescuers.

A party of seven W.E. girls were thrown into the water and only one, a 20-year-old Ciceronian named Anna Meinert, survived. She is now Mrs. Anna Grimmer, of 901 Wesley Avenue, Oak Park.

Another survivor was Anthony P. Thielen, 5130 W. 19th Street, who held onto a bannister on the second deck although the water was neck-high.

Henry G. Thyer, 3725 Euclid Avenue, was another survivor, but lost his father and nine-year-old sister in the disaster. Joseph Kral, now town collector of Cicero, also was among the lucky ones who survived.

All of these survivors recall, above everything else, the monumental terror and panic that contributed so greatly to the disaster.

As one writer put it the following day, "Women and children first? Not on your life! Chivalry was dead aboard the sunken ship; men clawed, shoved and struck women and children to make their way to safety."

Whether that bitter condemnation was true or not, Mrs. Grimmer recalls that she grasped at a man's leg as she slid into the water and was kicked until she let go.

She was saved at the last moment by a man who grasped her wrist and held her for several minutes, although his strength was ebbing rapidly. He kept apologizing by telling her that his grip was leaving him - but he held on. (Perhaps in such moments of great panic the heroes, more often than not, counter-balance the cowards.)

Why did the Eastland overturn less than 50 feet from the Clark Street dock? Unseaworthiness? Hardily; she was a keelless boat that had made many cruises on the Great Lakes in fair weather and foul.

Overloading? Her purser clocked her passengers at 2,500, the maximum allowed under law, but it is known she was carrying a good 500 more - but this would still fall far short of overcrowding to a danger point.

A rush to the port side to watch a tug go by? This was the first conjecture, in which the passengers were blamed for crowding 10-deep at the port rail. But a court of inquiry learned from witnesses that the Eastland first listed to the starboard, then to the port and kept on going over.

Improper ballast? This is probably the answer. When the ship listed to the starboard, water was rushed into the portside to maintain a balance, but the in-rushing water went out of control and swung the ship back to portside too fast and the momentum kept it going on its tragic tip-over.

In any case, its captain, Henry Pedersen had charges of criminal negligence, as were the steamship company's officials.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually handed down a decision that "the boat was seaworthy; that the operators had taken proper precautions…"

And with that decision, the Eastland tragedy was closed, except in the minds of Mrs. Grimmer, Kral, Thyer, Thielen and others like them - the survivors who, every so often, feel haunted by the memory of the most maddening moments of panic they have ever known.

A requiem Mass will be said tomorrow at 8 a.m. in St. Mary of Czestochowa Church, 3010 S. 48th Court, in memory of the victims of the Eastland disaster, many of whom were members of that church.

[Picture] TRAGEDY - Rescuers, either crewmen of the ship or Chicago firemen, bring another victim of the Eastland disaster from the waters of the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. The disaster took the lives of 500 Hawthorne Works employees, with St. Dionysius and St. Mary of Czestochowa Catholic parishes hit so hard that as many as 20 requiem Masses were said daily following the tragedy.

For comparison, here is a list of the major recorded maritime disasters on the Great Lakes prior to the Eastland tragedy, with the number lost in parenthesis.

Erie, on Lake Erie, 1841 (175); Phoenix, Lake Michigan, 1847 (247); Griffith, Lake Erie, 1850 (300); Atlantic, Lake Erie, 1852 (250); Lady Elgin, Lake Michigan, 1860 (287); Seabird, Lake Michigan, 1868 (160).

In lives lost the Eastland disaster was the greatest tragedy in Chicago history. For comparison, the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 took 657 lives; the great Chicago fire of 1871 accounted for only 250 victims although it destroyed $196-million in property.

Discounting wartime sinking of troopships and other military vessels, the greatest disasters on the high seas in modern history were the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 with a loss of 1,517 lives, and the torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915 in which 1,500 victims perished.


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