On a chilly, drizzly morning in July 1915, 2,500 people boarded the Eastland, a ship (it’s a SHIP not a boat, these are things I’ve learned) headed to Indiana for a picnic. It was tight on that ship, shoulder to shoulder, upper and lower decks filled. With all on board, the gangplank rose, and after a few tips from side to side, the Eastland just, rolled over – one witness said it was like “watching a humpback whale take a nap.” On that drizzly day, 844 people died.
In terms of lives lost it is Chicago’s biggest disaster ever. If you don’t count crew members, more lives were lost than Titanic.
844 souls and the ship never even left the dock.
This year is the 100-year anniversary of the Eastland disaster. Even calling it the anniversary feels odd to me, the word implies celebration.
There are many people doing great work caring for the memories of the Eastland. The Eastland Disaster Historical Society are the most caring, passionate and truly gorgeous people I have ever met. They are working hard at setting up events for the weekend of July 24th and beyond. They even held a mock trial – did the owners know the ship was bad? The straw poll of lawyers (that’s the actual name for a group of lawyers, like a dazzle of zebras) said the owners of the Eastland were not guilty. All of us regular *emotional* people said they were guilty. One hundred years later and we still want someone to pay, to remember.
That’s why we mark our disasters, some of them anyway. We honor them with art, information, education, emotion.
In front of the where the Eastland settled, the pylons in the river are different. At the Riverwalk there’s a description of the disaster. In 2012, Lookingglass did an original musical about it.
There’s quite a lot honoring the Chicago fire, there’s the camp song, there’s the bridgehouse at Michigan and Wacker, there’s the flame in front of the Chicago Fire Academy, hell, we even tried a Fire Festival.
We mark our other disasters too, the battle at Fort Dearborn is all over the place. There’s the other bridgehouse at Michigan & Wacker depicting Billy Wells (who Wells street is named after!) fighting the big bad Indians. There’s the scene in the stone of 333 N. Michigan (the blog photo), and even another sculpture where the battle at Fort Dearborn took place.
Hell, even the Dave Matthews disaster got it’s own remembrance marker.
At first glance it appears that Chicago pays great homage to it’s disasters, that we give ourselves to them, honor them so we don’t forget.
But then there’s the one disaster that receives close to no honor at all and it’s the one that requires the deepest empathy – the Iroquois Fire. The Iroquois fire was the largest theater fire in the history of the world. On December 30th, 1903, 635 people died in the Iroquois fire and they died horribly and frightfully. The Iroquois used to stand EXACTLY where the Oriental is now. How they built another theater on the ashes of the Iroquois is beyond me, if that shit isn’t haunted, I don’t know what is. And if that’s not haunted, then the alley behind the Oriental must be, we call it Death Alley, 125 people died in that alley the day of the fire.
There is no plaque. There is no nothing. There is nothing on, about, or around the theater or in the alley.
There is a beautiful Loredo Taft sculpture that hangs in the back corner of City Hall, it’s hard to find even when you’re looking for it.
I have a theory of course, as I do – the Iroquois was the fault of the city. It was the fault of our civic government, from the mayor to the fire commissioner to the fire marshall to the cops to everyone. The Iroquois was the city of Chicago’s fault.
Wouldn’t want to put up a marker for that.
So let us mark the Eastland, our biggest disaster – but let us not forget too the smaller ones, the hidden ones, and let us also remember that our greatest triumphs often come from our greatest disasters. Let us honor all of them.