Friday, July 24, 2015

Eastland disaster warns us still

Bobbie Aanstad

     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 family took the trolley and arrived at the Chicago River about 6:45 a.m., July 24, 1915. Five ships awaited to take them to Michigan. The Eastland was scheduled to leave first, so they got on that, and found a spot on the crowded cabin deck to wait for the deadliest accident in Chicago history to unfold.
     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.


  1. I thought the ship tipped over when people on deck rushed to one side to see a passing boat.

    1. And I thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl.

    2. What is it about then? I never knew.

      Anyway, Mr. S., has a big 2 page spread in the paper today under Lead, very good.

    3. Good idea to personalize the story, put a name on it, etc. Not just bunch of people drowned.

    4. For many of us who can swim, it's easy to take for granted. You grow up in Northbrook, if you miss out on YMCA and park district day camps (which all sent you to the pool sooner or later,) let alone formal swim lessons, we get you in freshman PE. It wasn't until college that I met people who had never before in their lives lived within 20 miles of a publically-available pool. Learning to swim wasn't even practical for them.

      That tiny minority of colleges like MIT has the right idea: living on a planet that's two-thirds water, if you can't swim, it's okay. We've got a pool, we're going to make sure you learn.

    5. never mind, I looked up the Lola info, wow

    6. for 1915, that's a pretty edgy swimsuit, some were still wearing longer skirts and black stockings

  2. It shows a darker side of humananity as well and yes,it's so impt to learn to swim.

    Thanks for the reminder of this piece of Chicago history. The old pic is interesting.

  3. In the early '60s, The University of Chicago's graduation requirements included proficiency swimming & treading water. We rumored it was attributed to history of undergraduates committing suicide in nearby Lake Michigan.

    1. Yes, the curriculum is tough there.

  4. I think we shrink from dwelling on the Eastland disaster because the circumstances were so ordinary and it's all too easy to imagine ourselves in a similar predicament: a crowded el train, "Jeez, she doesn't seem to be slowing down for the station;" waiting in a packed airline terminal, "Boy, that plane is coming in pretty low;" Michigan Avenue midwinter, "Those humongous icicles way up there aren't falling, are they?."


  5. My university has only recently ended their swimming test requirement. Fortunately, I passed that long-ago test, even though it took me three tries to get through Beginners when I took lessons as a child. I had issues with floating.

    1. Me too, with regard to the floating, Coey. Do you still have a problem with that? I took beginning and intermediate classes as an adult (years ago) and managed to pass the tests at the end, but I still feel like I don't so much swim as prolong the sinking process. I feel like I could get myself out of a pool if I fell in, but if somebody dropped me in the middle of Lake Michigan I don't think I'd last very long. I can swim fine, it's the breathing while I'm doing it that's the problem... ; ) Needless to say, it's not one of my preferred modes of exercise.

    2. Once I got over the floating hump, I was OK. Not particularly good form or anything, but enough to get by. Although over the course of my in-water life, I'm sure 90% of it is just standing or bobbing.

    3. yes, the breathing is tricky- I can only sustain it for a while, so I find the backstroke easier

    4. yes, one must master the floating first

  6. The best is to get lessons as a kid- glad my folks saw the need for that(since they didn't know how) .

    1. I've never heard of colleges or univ. pushing for swim tests and I taught at a few and went to a few others.

    2. I graduated from IIT in 1980 and back then you had to swim a lap to get a diploma.

  7. True conversation earlier today:
    Me: Oh, today's the 100th anniversary of the Eastland disaster.
    Husband: (blank look)Eastland?
    Me: Ship? Chicago River? Hundreds dead?
    H: Oh! Totally forgot about that.
    Me: Well, that proves one of the points of this post.

    1. lol, Nikki sounds like my spouse

  8. At my high school they had this horrible thing called "Drownproofing." They would do things like tie your hands or feet together (fortunately not all four limbs at once) and make you try to stay above water. This was supposedly to simulate muscle cramps, but I think it was just basic sadism.

    To this day the smell of chlorinated water nauseates me slightly. I probably still remember how to swim, but haven't tested myself in a long time and don't intend to.

    1. I know at my former hs, if one got on the higher end of the swim skill spectrum, they had to jump into the water with old jeans and take them off, with the bathing suit being under of course, then try to get air in them like a flotation.

      Where the heck did you go to hs, Scribe, in Iraq? ;) In this day and age, parents would probably call the sup't or threaten to sue.

    2. The swim lessons that my kids took do that clothing drill, hoodie, jeans, shoes. They have to swim out 30 ft, tread water for 5 min., then make floats out of the clothes. In a lake. They also have the kids swim across the lake and back(2.5 mi) for endurance, in a group w a boat escort. My oldest is a lifeguard and helps teach the lessons there now. Excellent program, turned my kids into part fish.

    3. Your probram sounds intense but even basic park district lessons will do.

    4. It is pretty intense, but as the director puts it, we live in a county w 123 lakes, and it's not always an easy or ideal situation if you fall in. They try to prep them for the worst.

    5. Swimming fully clothed was another part of "drownproofing." One of the least oppressive, actually.

  9. A perfect metaphor for Chicago!
    Knowingly doomed from the start, land sharks and hooligans everywhere.

  10. In the leafy suburban paradise of Highland Park most kids learn to swim early in expensive programs and camps. But the High School knows that others, especially recent immigrants, don't know how to swim and may be too embarrassed around kids who have been swimming well since preschool to be able to learn in front of them in regular gym class. So they started a before school swimming program for those needing to learn. It's a supportive environment and has been immensely popular. It's one of the under the radar programs at HPHS that really serves the students of lower SES.

  11. Unfortunately, not all have the privilege of such good school programs or the chance to live in the affluent, north suburbs.

  12. There's an excellent book on the subject,"The Sinking of the Eastland-America's Forgotten Tragedy", by Jay Bonansinga. The author does a really good job of detailing the lives of many of the victims, as well as the typical Chicago politics that followed the event. Here's an excerpt of a review, from Amazon.

    "The author does a service in putting a human spin on this tragic event. Hundreds of people died in this disaster. These were hard working immigrants and their families who were hoping for a pleasureable cruise. The author limits his story to the human aspect of the disaster. As Bonansinga would say, another book has investigated that aspect and his story is about the human beings that were affected. There were a few memorable experiences about this book. The fireman carrying a dead child from the boat. A whole family wiped out because of the disaster. A small boy nicknamed little feller dead."

  13. After the Titanic sank, the Eastland’s owners were ordered by law to put extra lifeboats and life rafts and life jackets aboard, making an already unstable boat quite top-heavy...a disaster just waiting to happen.The Eastand tragedy is mostly forgotten today because nobody rich or famous was aboard. Just a couple of thousand mostly-immigrant working slobs.

    Most of the victims (about three quarters) were quite young...teens and young adults in their early twenties. The average age of the dead was only 23. Many of them had survived a long ocean voyage while emigrating to America...mainly from Eastern Europe...only to die twenty feet from the shore of a filthy river about twenty feet deep. Did their immigrant families receive any aid or compensation, or even help with funeral and burial expenses, from their employer? Nope. Not a penny. And they died because their masters compelled them to march in a staged employer-solidarity parade.There's a terrible amount of irony in that last sentence,and a reason why these 844 martyrs to corporate greed and callous neglect should never be forgotten.

    I learned a great deal about the Eastland as a kid. In my teens, I would go down to the main library on the 'L' and spend whole vacation days reading microfilmed stories about Chicago disasters and gangland massacres (I was a sick puppy at an early age). The newspapers of 1915 wildly inflated the death toll, perhaps to sell more copies, a routine practice after major disasters. Some headlines had up to 2,500 dead. Yellow journalism at its best...or worst.

    Bodies were pulled out of the river for days afterward...some were found dozens of miles downstream. Some remains were not found for years. Some never were. Even worse, not all those trapped below decks died immediately. Attempts were soon made to rescue them by cutting holes in the side of the vessel. But few of the trapped were saved.

    The lawsuits dragged on for almost 25 years. During the proceedings, the person thought mostly to blame passed away. In the end, nobody went to jail, nobody was found liable, and the families of the dead got peanuts, if they got anything at all. We see the same outcome after many of the more recent tragedies in American history. In many ways, nothing much has changed.

  14. Carl Sandburg is celebrated as a writer and a poet, but he was also a reporter for the Daily News from 1917 to 1932, and a regular contributor to the International Socialist Review, the leading voice of the Socialist Party. In September 1915, he wrote bitterly about the not-so-natural causes of the Eastland disaster. He wrote that the workers were forced to go on the trip, and that tickets were handed out by the bosses. It was either buy a ticket and go to the picnic on Saturday--or don't bother to punch in on Monday. Saturday was normally a working day… probably at least half-a-day, but more likely a full day..

    Sandburg reported that workers were also required to dress up in white shoes and white hats and to parade down the streets of Michigan City for the cameras...and to show worker solidarity and company loyalty.. Why wear white? It was the opposite of red, which stood for unions and Bolshevism. Were the clothes and hats free? Hell, no...the workers had to BUY them out of their lousy paychecks. Hey, this was 1915. Paternalism was the rule. If you didn't like it, go start your own company. Or starve.

    Sandburg also wrote a poem about the disaster. Be's pretty harsh (scroll down, if you like). So much so that it remained unpublished for almost eighty years.

    Let’s be honest now
    For a couple of minutes
    Even though we’re in Chicago.

    Since you ask me about it,
    I let you have it straight;
    My guts ain’t ticklish about the Eastland.

    It was a hell of a job, of course
    To dump 2,500 people in their clean picnic clothes
    All ready for a whole lot of real fun
    Down into the dirty Chicago river without any warning.

    Women and kids, wet hair and scared faces,
    The coroner hauling truckloads of the dripping dead
    To the Second Regiment armory where doctors waited
    With useless pulmotors and the eight hundred motionless stiff
    Lay ready for their relatives to pick them out on the floor
    And take them home and call up the undertaker...

    (Sandburg then goes on, at some length, about the other horrors and tragedies he sees every day as a reporter on the streets of 1915 Chicago: tuberculosis, prostitution, neglected children, aborted fetuses, crippled factory workers, the homeless, the hungry.

    He concludes:

    Yes, the Eastland was a dirty bloody job—--bah!
    I see a dozen Eastlands
    Every morning on my way to work
    And a dozen more going home at night.


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