Editorial: 100 years later, Eastland disaster has hard lessons to offer

SHARE Editorial: 100 years later, Eastland disaster has hard lessons to offer
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Borek Lizec, consulate general of the Czech Republic in Chicago, lays flowers on the Eastland memorial during the dedication ceremony at Bohemian National Cemetery on July 12. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

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The SS Eastland disaster, in which more people died than in any other single event in Chicago history, has receded so far into memory that today many people never have heard of it.

Fortunately, 100 years after the huge and unsteady ship trapped hundreds as it rolled over at its dock in the Chicago River, a series of events and a permanent memorial are helping to bring attention to the July 24, 1915, tragedy that took the lives of 844 people, many of them workers from Western Electric in Cicero.

Starting at 10 a.m. Friday, a series of public ceremonies will be held along the Riverwalk between Clark and La Salle near the site of the Eastland sinking; A permanent memorial was dedicated at the Bohemian National Cemetery on Pulaski at Foster on July 12.

EDITORIAL

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The roots of the Eastland calamity run deep in Chicago history. Poet Carl Sandburg bitterly believed it was a tale of corporate callousness. Warnings about the ship’s well-documented instability were ignored. Two years earlier, an independent maritime engineer had told federal inspectors the Eastland was a “serious accident” waiting to happen. Yet official investigations never called anyone to account.

It also was a story of ineptitude. Following the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier, new rules required extra lifeboats, rafts and life

The Eastland disaster, Chicago. July 24, 1915.

preservers in heavy crates, even though it was known the extra weight would make some ships such as the Eastland top-heavy and prone to capsizing. Also adding weight was newly installed concrete flooring.

It was a story of heroism, too, as onlookers plunged into the river to aid floundering passengers and the chief engineer stayed below to prevent a boiler explosion that would have killed even more people.

And it was a tale of selective memory. The Titanic sinking grew into an enduring story in the national consciousness while the Eastland, in which more passengers died, was soon little remembered even in Chicago.

Why? Possibly because this is also a story about social class in America. The Titanic carried many passengers in society’s top tier, while most of those who died in the Eastland were factory workers and their relatives, many of them immigrants.

For a full century, the Eastland disaster has been an overlooked story in Chicago’s history. In missing the story, we missed its hard lessons.

The Eastland disaster

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