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Film of Eastland Disaster a First Look at Chicago's Worst Maritime Tragedy

By Alex Parker | February 9, 2015 6:04am | Updated on February 9, 2015 8:53am
 The Eastland Disaster Historical Society was notified of rare footage of the sunken ship by a Facebook fan.
The Eastland Disaster Historical Society was notified of rare footage of the sunken ship by a Facebook fan.
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CHICAGO — The only known film capturing the aftermath of the sinking of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River in 1915 has made it back to Chicago in a very modern way.

Two films apparently archived in Holland were brought to the attention of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society on Saturday when a fan posted them on the group's Facebook page, the organization said. The worst maritime disaster in the city's history, 844 people were killed. The last known survivor of the disaster, Marion Eicholz, died last month at age 102.

"Since founding the Eastland Disaster Historical Society 17 years ago, we had always felt that video footage existed somewhere, but were never able to locate it. These two short video clips are the first that EDHS has seen, and likely, the first that the public has seen of the Eastland Disaster as well," said a statement posted on the group's website.

The films were posted on a scholarly European website that seeks to collect stories from the World War I era. The society said the films were archived by the EYE Film Instituut Nederland in Holland.

One video, which is preceded by a minute of footage an Italian military ceremony, begins with a slide in Dutch that is loosely translated to, "The steamer Eastland which sank on the Chicago River, and that killed more than 1,000 people." The silent film shows the steamer on its side as rescuers look for survivors amid the wreckage and floating debris.

Men in naval uniforms stand on the hull draped in blankets. It abruptly cuts to another scene after a minute.

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The second video, which begins 9 minutes and 10 seconds in, shows efforts to right the ship as water is pumped out into the river.

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"The moving pictures humanize the Disaster, bringing to life Chicago's greatest loss-of-life tragedy for the world to see and experience," the society's statement said.

The Eastland sunk while moored to a dock on the Chicago River. It was supposed to take families of employees of the Western Electric Company on a picnic to Michigan City, Ind.

Passengers boarded near Clark and LaSalle streets, and the overcrowded ship listed on its side, settling on the bottom of the river. Many families had made their way below decks to escape the heat — and thus were trapped inside the vessel.

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