Marion Eichholz taught Sunday school for 52 years. She lived with a sister, Iris, in a two-bedroom Berwyn bungalow where they liked to watch “Little House on the Prairie.”
She won awards for near-perfect attendance in 40 years of work at the same payroll department. She didn’t learn to drive and never married, though she treasured a Bible given to her by a male suitor.
But with the death of this quiet woman — the last known survivor of the Eastland ship disaster in 1915 in Chicago, which killed more passengers than the wreck of the Titanic and more people than the Chicago Fire — “a great American tragedy and injustice slips further from the collective memory,” said Michael McCarthy, author of a new book about the SS Eastland, “Ashes Under Water.”
Miss Eichholz, 102, died Nov. 24 at ManorCare Health Services in Elk Grove Village.
The Eastland killed 844 people in an estimated 20 feet of water without setting sail. It rolled over in the Chicago River just west of the Clark Street Bridge. Many of the victims were children like Marion, a 3-year-old dressed in her Sunday best when she arrived at the steamer.
It was July 24, 1915. She and her parents, Anna and Fred Eichholz, a worker at the Western Electric plant in Cicero, boarded the “Speed Queen of the Lakes” to enjoy a company cruise to Michigan City, Indiana. Many of the more than 2,500 passengers were Czech, German, Hungarian and Polish immigrants who crafted the company’s candlestick phones.
But the ship, which had a record of stability problems, listed at the wharf, “as though it were a whale going to take a nap,” said reporter Josiah Woolfolk, an eyewitness who became a celebrated pulp writer as Jack Woodford. Screaming families spilled into the water.
Another younger sister, Shirley Clifford, shared Marion’s recollections of the tragedy.
“She remembered sitting up on the deck. My mother was sitting in a lounge chair, and she was standing next to my mother. And my dad was there and she remembered the boat starting to lift,” Clifford said. “She was thrown against the railing and my dad went and grabbed her. He was a good swimmer and he told my mother [who couldn’t swim] to stay on deck as long as she could. She remembers my dad picking her up and jumping in the water and starting to swim. And she said, ‘I always remember dad was blowing the water away from my face.’ ”
He made it to safety.
“She had these brand-new shoes. They were Mary Janes,” Clifford said. “When a [rescue] tugboat came along and she saw her shoes were missing, she started to cry.”
Her father didn’t have money for a cab, so he took public transportation home and changed into dry clothes. Not knowing his wife had been saved, he wondered if he would find her with the coroner. So many had died that hundreds were laid out in a temporary morgue at the future site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios.
“Just when they were leaving, a car pulled up in front of the house and my mother got out of the car,” Clifford said. “He probably leaped for joy.”
Clifford remembered their mother’s greeting at their reunion: “Hello, Marion, I’m happy to see you.”
“The Western [Electric] was closed for one week and my dad went to his department,” she said. “He said about half of the people who worked there weren’t there anymore. They all drowned.”
Their mother revisited the tragedy on her deathbed. “She was thrown in the water and she went under, because she told us there were so many babies in carriages in the water, or babies just floating,” Clifford said. “When she died, she said to us, ‘Can you see all the babies? Look at all the babies.’ ”
Miss Eichholz was born in New York. Her parents moved to Cicero because Western Electric was expanding. After graduating from what would become Morton East High School, she landed a job at Balaban and Katz, working at the Chicago Theatre, where she handled payroll for 40 years until retiring in her 60s. Miss Eichholz lived for decades with her younger sister, Iris, in a Berwyn bungalow purchased by their father.
“She was a good aunt,” said a nephew, Dan Clifford. “I’m 60 years old and I’ve never gone a birthday or Christmas without getting a card from her.” Anytime someone stopped in to visit, “You’d get a thank-you note in the mail.”
She knew the names of all the TV weather reporters because she worried about storms and cold, always warning relatives to dress warmly. She loved watching TV concerts featuring Vienna waltzes.
Services have been held. Miss Eichholz was buried with a worn Bible held together with rubber bands, a long-ago gift from a suitor she turned down when he asked her to marry him. “It was her favorite,” her sister said. “I always wondered if she still had feelings for him.”
“In the nursing home, she’d dig out her yearbook,” her nephew said. “She’d want to see his picture.”
The catastrophe “was one of the great American injustices,” McCarthy said.
Repairs to the Eastland had been postponed, and “The shipowners got away with something,” he said.
“It’s sad and kind of eerie that we lose our last living survivor mere months before the 100th anniversary,” said Jay Bonansinga, author of “The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy.”