Bobbie Aanstad could do something most 13-year-old girls in 1915 could not: She could swim. Her sweetheart, Ernie Carlson, had taught her one summer in Michigan.
She lived in Logan Square, then a Norwegian immigrant enclave, with her widowed mother and little sister. She had an uncle Olaaf who worked at the vast Western Electric works in Cicero, where 40,000 employees made every telephone in America. He invited them to come to the company excursion to Michigan City.
The Eastland disaster is often said to be forgotten, but the truth is worse: It is ignored, a tragedy that has none of the glitz of the Titanic, which killed fewer passengers, nor the can-do spirit of the Great Chicago Fire. It was a mass watery death in full public view, within two dozen feet of shore, on a ship still tied to the wharf.
What happened is plain enough. When the Eastland received its 2,500 passengers — the absolute limit — the gangways were closed and the ship's crew prepared to cast off.
But the ship, notoriously unstable, could not right itself. For a few minutes it listed back and forth, starboard toward the pier, then port, toward the center of the river, and back. The captain tried to trim the ship, filling various ballast tanks. For the picnickers, the swaying was a lark; they whooped happily as the boat tilted this way, then that.
Then the Eastland began to tip to port and kept going. A refrigerator toppled over, sending bottles of beer crashing. A piano crushed a boy. The laughter turned to screams as the boat turned on its side and settled in water that came exactly to its midpoint.
In what instantly became a dark, watery cell, Bobbie Aanstad dog paddled for her life, then held onto a railing while others died around her. She cried for her mother. Outside, the surface of the Chicago River was a thrashing, clawing, screaming mass of humanity.
"Most of them, it seemed, could not swim, or were dragged down by those that could not swim," deckhand Harry Miller said later."Men, women and children, all over that part of the river."
Bystanders tossed chairs, ropes, chicken crates, anything they could find, into the river. The women were doubly doomed — not only had the vast majority never been taught to swim, but they were weighed down by long dresses, buttoned into clothes that could not be quickly shed in the water. If rescue didn't come in seconds it came too late.
Another reason the Eastland does not loom large in civic memory is that it was not a moment of pride for Chicago. While bystanders who could swim did leap into the waters and saved lives, others picked the pockets of the horrified crowd — and even robbed the dead. A fire boat sat a block away, the captain delayed going to the rescue, worried about a boiler explosion. The police were later accused of holding back the crowd and would-be rescuers, instead of helping those in the water.
That night, when a temporary morgue was opened, the curious far outnumbered family members attempting to identify lost loved ones. After the city erected barriers along the river to give privacy to the recovery of bodies, a janitor at a nearby building admitted the gawkers to the roof for a dime a head. When the names of the deceased were announced — including 22 entire families — some of their homes were robbed.
Come Monday, hundreds began showing up at the Hawthorne works, hoping to fill the jobs of those who had not yet been buried.
Though a century has passed, aspects of the tragedy are with us yet. The clock tower of the red brick Reid, Murdock Building, built in 1914, still broods over the scene. The chicken company whose crates were tossed into the water, Cougel Brothers, is now Cougel Commission, and still sells chicken.
Bobbie Aanstad's two granddaughters, Barbara and Susan, live in Arlington Heights, and well remember their grandmother, who lived to be 90 and late in life married Ernie Carlson, the boy who taught her to swim.
"My grandmother always told us, when we were little girls growing up, 'It's very important you girls know how to swim,'" said Barbara Decker Wachholz, whose Eastland Disaster Historical Society will hold a memorial at the river at 1 p.m. Friday and a candle lighting at dusk Saturday.
Another thing that has not changed: Most people still can't swim, not well enough to save their lives.
According to the American Red Cross, while 80 percent say they can swim, the number who can stay alive in an emergency, who are able to swim 25 yards or tread water for a minute, is around 46 percent. The numbers for Latinos are far worse: 60 percent can't swim; African-Americans are worse still: 67 percent. Nationwide, 10 Americans drown every day. Or the equivalent of the Eastland's death toll of 844, drowning every three months, year in and year out.