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Chicago Marks Its Deadliest Day With Centennial of Eastland Disaster

By Ted Cox | July 24, 2015 6:48am | Updated on July 24, 2015 2:53pm
 Chicago marked the 100th anniversary of the Eastland Disater, which left 844 people dead.
Eastland Disaster
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DOWNTOWN — Chicago marked its deadliest single event with the centennial of the Eastland disaster Friday.

Ald. Edward Burke (14th) led a commemorative ceremony between LaSalle and Clark streets on the south side of the Chicago River on the 100th anniversary of what he called "the worst marine disaster in city history," which left 844 dead.

Top-heavy and overloaded and set to leave for Michigan City, Ind., on a company day trip, the S.S. Eastland rocked first to the dock side as passengers waved to those on shore, then rolled over the other way into the river as they scrambled to the other side, dumping passengers on deck into the water and trapping others inside.

RELATED: Guide to the Eastland Disaster (VIDEOS) and Weekend Memorial Events

 A firefighter cradles a dead infant in disbelief in recovering bodies from the Eastland disaster. The shot was taken by Jun Fujita, a photographer who worked for the Chicago Evening Post and later the Daily News.
A firefighter cradles a dead infant in disbelief in recovering bodies from the Eastland disaster. The shot was taken by Jun Fujita, a photographer who worked for the Chicago Evening Post and later the Daily News.
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Chicago History Museum

"It's hard to imagine, isn't it, the feelings of terror they must have experienced at that moment," Burke said as dozens of family members of Eastland survivors and rescuers and other Chicago history buffs looked on from the new Riverwalk.

Alberta Adamson, president of the Eastland Fellowship Authority Center for History, was dressed in period garb as he pointed out that the heavy clothing of the era weighed down many in the water, especially women and children, who made up the majority of the victims.

Burke lauded the way families of survivors had preserved their stories through oral history.

Karl Sup, founder of the Eastland Memorial Society website, spoke of how his grandmother and grandfather, Elsa and Herman Krause, were saved. Herman Krause was wearing an Uncle Sam costume for a parade scheduled later in the day in Michigan City and was pulled from the river by men in a boat shouting, "Save Uncle Sam!" Elsa, meanwhile, was pulled from the water by her long hair.

Frank Jeffers said his grandfather Martin Jeffers, an Irish immigrant who found employment as a LaSalle Street bridge tender, dove in to save dozens of passengers who spilled into the river.

Andrew Johnson showed the 25-pound "diving slippers" his grandfather Iver Johnson used to weigh himself down in recovering more than 100 bodies from the interior of the ship.

"These stories are passed down from generation to generation," said historian Richard Lindberg, a Burke staffer. "And this is how we keep the past alive."

Family members of the survivors commented on their good fortune, as there weren't all that many who made it back to the riverside only 20 feet from the ship. The S.S. Eastland was the first of a handful of ships hired to carry employees of the Western Electric company and their families on an excursion to Michigan City on July 24, 1915, when it capsized at dockside at 7:20 a.m. with an estimated 2,500 people on board including both passengers and crew.

Some 844 died, including 22 entire families. Authorities put the number of dead children at 290, while 19 sets of siblings survived to be orphaned as both their parents drowned.

It was later found that the Eastland, called the "Speed Queen of the Great Lakes," had been renovated in a way that left it top-heavy, partly from lifeboats installed to hang high on the sides following the sinking  of the Titanic three years earlier. Overloaded with passengers, it rolled on its side, trapping hundreds inside under water.

It eclipsed the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire as the city's worst calamity, with more than 600 killed. By contrast, the Great Chicago Fire is believed to have left more than 300 dead.

Burke called for a permanent memorial to be erected on the site. Artist Oscar Leon said he had designs for a bronze sculpture that would comprise a dozen figures, including those of a family, and allow room for all 844 victims to be listed. He placed the cost of the sculpture at $500,000.

Burke said the project was at "the very preliminary stages," and that it should be consistent with the prevailing design of the Riverwalk.

"Of course, the big question is, where do the funds come from?" Burke added. Asked if any city funding were available, with the city facing a hefty budget deficit and the need to make overdue pension payments by the end of the year, he just shook his head.

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