Just days before the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Eastland steamship in the Chicago River, a disaster that claimed the lives of 844 people, descendants of the victims gathered Sunday to dedicate what’s believed to the first-ever major memorial in their relatives’ honor.
The granite Eastland memorial is in Section 16 of Bohemian National Cemetery, home to the largest concentration of the disaster’s victims of any cemetery.
The descendants and their supporters say it took about 100 years to get a major memorial to the tragedy because unlike the Titanic’s passengers, the Eastland victims were mainly Central European immigrants, blue-collar workers from the city’s West Side.
The boat, loaded with Western Electric Company employees headed for a company picnic in Michigan City, Ind., sunk on July 24, 1915 in the river between LaSalle and Clark. More than 2,500 people were on board, many of who were trapped below deck when the boat suddenly rolled over on to its side.
Plaques had marked the site of the tragedy, which is now home to the new Riverwalk, said Chuck Michalek, chairman of the Eastland Centennial Commemorative Project Committee.
Michalek said he doesn’t know of any other memorial besides the one dedicated Sunday.
“Everybody remembers the Titanic,” Michalek said. But “the Eastland [victims] were working class. They were not famous people.”
The victims buried at Bohemian were largely Czech, German and Polish workers, Michalek said. Many worked for Western Electric, “the Microsoft of the turn of the century,” he said.
The memorial features a green metal steering wheel from a Great Lakes steamship similar to the Eastland, embedded in granite carved to look like waves.
The wheel is either rising or sinking, depending on personal interpretation, Michalek said. It was designed by Lubomir Dostal, a Czech artist.
For the families of the victims, the memory of the ship is still significant.
Twenty-two entire families perished in the sinking, said Ted Wachholtz, president of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.
All seven members of the Sindelar family died. Their gravesite sits just a few feet from the new memorial.
George and Josie Sindelar were on board the Eastland with their five children, ages 5 to 15.
Christine Harmon, the Sindelars’ great-great-grandniece, said that in her family the loss has “been very much kept alive.”
Harmon, 45, came to the dedication Sunday to honor their memory. She is the keeper of the few relics of the Sindelar family, including a watch Josie Sindelar was wearing around her neck that day.
“I didn’t learn about it in school,” Harmon said. “They were immigrants. It was kind of easy to forget about it.”
Maggie Meier, 62, lost her three great aunts in the disaster.
Her grandmother was just 12 when her three sisters, Rose, Anna and Marie Dolejs, all employees of Western Electric, died.
Meier discovered the women had no gravestone at their grave in Bohemian’s Section 16 and teamed up with some cousins to get a marker placed just a few weeks ago.
Meier left a flower on the memorial and one on the women’s gravesite Sunday.
Pam Morong, 57, donated a memorial brick to recognize how close her family came to losing a member aboard the Eastland.
Her great aunt, Sophie Morong, was 18 and answering phones for Western Electric in the summer of 1915.
Morong, a Czech immigrant, was supposed to be on the boat.
“She was habitually late,” Pam Morong said. And late again to get on the boat.
Sophie Morong went on to get married and have two daughters, who each had three kids, Pam Morong said.
There’s a real possibility had Sophie Morong made the ship, “that whole branch of the family would not have existed.”