It was a morning to remember. On July 24th, 1915 in downtown Chicago, over 2,000 Western Electric Employees and their families, dressed in their best and went to board the Eastland for the annual company picnic. The Eastland was a breathtaking steamship and many came to watch as the ship loaded the excited and happy employees and families.
Then… the unthinkable happened.
The Eastland (as you will find out within the book, was never a very stable feeling ship) rolled over in the Chicago river, trapping many of those on board within its body. The woman, who were dressed in high boots, jewelery, large skirts, and over coats, became human anchors. Men were said to have trampled children, and shoved aside women in the panic to escape.
In the end, after three days of rescue attempts… 844 men, women, and children died.
The interior of the Eastland changed suddenly, as if by the dark magic of a fun house mirror. Floors became walls, port holes became skylights, and the gigantic influx of water turned the mahogany trimmed rooms into sealed chambers worthy of Harry Houdini’s worst nightmares.
So Sheila, why the morbid fascination with tragedy?
Well… I don’t really know – but morbid fascination seems harsh… I would say more an interest in history, and what seems to me to be important history.
I am always surprised when I find out about something like this and realize if not for certain circumstances, I may have never heard of the Eastland and its tragic demise.
Readers of Book Journey may remember that in June of this year I went with three of my good friends to Chicago for a long girls exploratory weekend. The plan was… there was no plan. We would land where we landed, stay where we stay – but our destination was Chicago.
On our second day there we hopped on a double-decker tour bus and enjoyed the sights of Chicago…. at one point our tour guide stopped and showed up where this large steamliner, The Eastland, had overturned in 1915 killing 844 people.
I was stunned. As I looked at the spot being pointed to, I did not understand. The ship was docked – not moving. In still waters. Near the bridge where many people were watching. How did they all die? Why were they not saved? How does something like this happen?
I had to know more.
Upon returning home to Brainerd I was sharing my trip experience with Lloyd Anderson. He was familiar with the sinking of the Eastland and I mentioned to him I had to know more about this tragedy. A couple of weeks ago, Lloyd came into my office with this book that he had checked out of the library for me. Life had moved on for me and I had forgotten my desire to research this ship…. Lloyd had not.
The Sinking Of The Eastland traveled with me to Honduras and back. (Yes, Brainerd Library, the book is fine). I devoured the information inside.
Well written, and powerfully intense, I read about entire families being taken by this disaster, I learned of the divers who sent rescue teams at first into the chilly waters… that later became recovery teams instead. I read of every day public hero’s who dove in time and again to save people (and succeeded!) and I read of scoundrels who picked the pockets of the 800+ bodies lined up on the streets waiting to be identified.
For most of the book, I wept.
Jay Bonansinga writes a story that is at once heart wrenching and painful – he reveals mistakes that could have been avoided, and a captain that abandoned his ship. And while all this may be perceived as a hard HARD read… it is an important one. And you know what? Life is hard. All stories can not end sugary sweet and leaving you with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.
I for one am glad I spent time this past week with The Eastlander and its occupants. I now have a new mark on my heart… it is ship shaped.
The 2011 WHERE Are You Reading map has been updated to include The Sinking Of The Eastland
Thank you to Lloyd Anderson who borrowed this
from the Brainerd library on my behalf.