Tragedy of SS Eastland was Chicago's own Titanic

2012-04-14T21:00:00Z 2012-04-16T00:35:27Z Tragedy of SS Eastland was Chicago's own TitanicBy Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222 nwitimes.com

Borghild "Bobbie" Aanstad was nearing her 14th birthday when she boarded the SS Eastland with her mother, sister and uncle on a July morning nearly 97 years ago.

It was to be a day of fun for men, women and children dressed in their Sunday best. They expected to sail across Lake Michigan for a daylong adventure at Michigan City's Washington Park.

The Eastland, however, never left its dock on the Chicago River at the Clark Street bridge.

Instead, the ship — the length of a football field and four-plus stories tall — began to list. While crew members attempted to right the ship, loaded to capacity with 2,500 people, their efforts failed. At 7:30 a.m. July 24, 1915, the Eastland rolled to her side, dumping some passengers in the river and trapping others inside.

In all, 844 people died that morning. Of those, 841 were passengers, two were crew members, and one was a crew member of another ship who jumped into the river in an effort to rescue others but drowned.

Aanstad was lucky. She was thrown into the water inside a compartment where an air pocket allowed her to breathe until she was rescued several hours later. The rest of her family also survived.

News reports of the day compared the Eastland disaster to that of the RMS Titanic, which had sunk just three years before.

Still, the tragedy of the Eastland has never earned the notoriety of the Titanic, which struck an iceberg just before midnight April 14, 1912, and sunk within hours — killing 1,514 people.

"In our opinion, it was such a horrific punch to the stomach of Chicago, they pushed it down," said Ted Wachholz, Aanstad's grandson-in-law. Wachholz founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society in 1998 with his wife, Barbara Decker Wachholz, and sister-in-law Susan Decker, both granddaughters of Aanstad.

The Eastland didn't have any dignitaries aboard that day, Wachholz said. There were no Astors or Guggenheims, socialites or royalty.

Those aboard the Eastland were employees of Western Electric Co. and their family and friends. They made $15 to $17 per week, and the price of the ticket — $1 for adults and 75 cents for children — was steep for the time, Wachholz said. Some 7,000 people were to participate in the day's events. They were to travel on the Eastland and other ships for the three-hour cruise to Michigan City, a day at the park and a three-hour return night cruise.

"It was the marquee event of the year," Wachholz said.

In addition, Wachholz said, the tragedy occurred at the start of World War I, and people's minds were focused on that international crisis.

Wachholz, who grew up in Elgin, knew nothing of the tragedy for the first 25 years of his life. Then he met his wife and her grandmother. Aanstad grew to marry twice, raise a family and die at age 90 in 1991.

The trio organized the historical society in 1998 in honor of the Eastland disaster to honor not only the lives lost that day but also the families of those aboard, the rescuers and everyone involved in the tragedy.

"Today there are millions of people with a direct personal connection to the tragedy," he said. "In our view, there are tens of thousands of people intimately connected to this thing. Ours is the story of those tens of thousands of lives directly connected and impacted by the disaster."

They have dedicated a website to the tragedy, have been involved in authoring two books and a documentary, and took part in a 2000 exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. The Chicago exhibit was focused on the Titanic but devoted 1,000 square feet to the Eastland.

There is a historical marker at the corner of LaSalle Street and Wacker Drive and a photo essay across the river in the lobby of the Reid Murdock Center — a building that temporarily was used as a hospital and morgue after the shipwreck.

The society's efforts, Wachholz said, have reunited descendants of those involved in the 1915 tragedy.

"It has been awesome," he said.

The story of the Eastland didn't end when it rolled into the Chicago River that day. The ship was sold and reconfigured into the USS Wilmette, a naval training ship that plowed the waters of Lake Michigan for another three decades.

The ship, as the Wilmette, did make trips to the Michigan City harbor and was decommissioned finally in 1945 and sold the following year for scrap.

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