The Eastland Disaster – How We Honor & How We Don’t

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.


Chicago Elevated Talks Some Pedway In The Tribune!

I got a phone call last week from Barbara Brotman, a journalist from the Trib. She was so excited because she found a precious link from the lower half of the Michigan Ave bridge to the Pedway.

I was excited for her, I know how delicious pedway discoveries can be! We talked a bit and voila! There’s a quote or two from yours truly in her article about the pedway!

“Don’t be embarrassed, ” said Margaret Hicks, who gives tours of the Pedway with her Chicago tour company, Chicago Elevated. “Most people don’t even know about the Pedway at all.”

She loves the Pedway for it’s hiddenness and it’s underground urban community, but considers it poorly marked and confusing.

And the Metra train platform cut-through is the most complicated and little-known section of the system. “Someone had to show me that part, I will admit,” she said. “It takes a fellow Chicagoan to show you the way.”


Everyone’s still learning about the Pedway! I love it. There’s still much to explore!
Photo courtesy ABC7

Blackhawks WIN!

The Blackhawks win! Yes, yes, the Blackhawks win. HAWKS.

I’m not going to lie to you fine people, I am not really a sports person. I watched Jordan pretty religiously when that happened, but that’s about it. I know enough to know enough to give tours. I understand about billygoats, Bartmans and Superbowl Shuffles and I know that right now, the Blackhawks ARE our winning team.

But I don’t have a jersey, I forgot which games were at home. I kind of watched the last three games but I was totally doing other things. I’ll admit it, I’m as fair-weather as they come.

But it comes down to what past mayors, politicians and businessmen have known forever – what is good for Chicago is good for me. Whatever good comes to this city makes my heart glad, makes my tears well up and makes me excited for just how awesome this city is.

Oddly enough, my mother loved hockey, when I was 16 or 17 (almost thirty years ago, ouch, that was hard to type) she and my stepfather would go to Blackhawks games every Sunday night. She NEVER liked sports, it was such a strange thing that my mother loved the Hawks, but off she would go, leaving me happily alone to watch 21 Jumpstreet all by myself. She always said she loved how their hair would curl from under their helmets.

Back then, the hockey fans loved hockey, but Chicago didn’t love hockey, we loved basketball. We loved the 1985 Bears, we loved the teams that were winning then.

This love of hockey is relatively new. It’s a newer passion for us, and so maybe yes, the girls in their cute Blackhawks jerseys in Wrigleyville have no idea whose name is on the back of their jersey. There are bros who just crave another reason to drink and party and then there are those of us, and I think we are many, those of us who are excited for the city, excited for the party, excited for this city to WIN.

For me this little numbers fact totally nails it – I’ve been telling this story up and down State Street: When the LA Kings won the cup in 2014, their parade had 250,000 people. When Chicago won in 2013 THERE WERE TWO MILLION PEOPLE AT THE PARADE. Now, I don’t believe all of those people LOVE hockey like hockey-lovers love hockey, what Chicago loves, what Chicago is good at? Is support.

We’ll support you all over the place. I talk about this on the Second City tour, we’re made for support, in comedy, in sports, in art, in fire festivals. We can fail here and still succeed. This city is built on failure and experimentation. We are so good at falling and we’re so good at supporting each other when we do. So when we win?  The support is just so ridiculously awesome.

What touches me so much about this win is just how much we all wanted it. Every day, Blackhawk t-shirts everywhere with our full-of-pride Chicago flag built right in. Banners, pizzas, cookies, the Art Institute lions (why didn’t the Picasso this time around? WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE PICASSO THAT IT IS NOT SUPPORTING?), we all got into it, my whole city. Does it matter why? Does it matter if it’s true or pure or is it more important that we’re here, that we care and that we’ll support better than anyone?

This city and it’s people impress and amaze me all the time. You, me, we made this happen. By sheer will this city and those amazing men with their cute hair made this happen. We all did. And now all of us will celebrate and bask in the glory of the win and of our support of the win. No one does it better than we do. No one.



(photo courtesy of ABC7)



The NEW Chicago Riverwalk (Tour)

I’m so silly, I get my schedule all worked out for summer – I pore over calendars to figure out which tour would work best at which time – make sure that each tour is represented – make sure the IDEAL time is set for that tour, and then, as soon as I do it and send out listings and press releases and calendars of information, I change it.

But this is what happens and this is why my improviser mind serves me well as a tour guide,  because see, I’ll just CHANGE IT. Because I can do that. Because it’s my company and because sometimes, a tour idea just lays itself on a platter and I have to pick it up and eat it, because I’m hungry, I’m tour hungry.

So! I added The Riverwalk Tour back into rotation! I did this tour a few years ago, I called it “The Who Needs a Boat? Tour” and it was a walk along the river (not down by it, because well, it used to smell like pee honestly and you couldn’t walk by the river because the riverwalk kept making you go up stairs all the time and really, it just was not pleasant). It was a pretty tour, but it just, it lacked magic. And I need magic if I’m going to eat tours.

Well now, with the new Chicago Riverwalk, I’m stuffing my face again! I walked it’s span last week and I was absolutely giddy – I was laughing to myself, smiling, pointing things out to no one. People were lounging by the river, LOUNGING, seriously, that is just not something we do by the river. Kids were running, office workers sunning, bikers biking and everyone was taking photos.

And as I kept walking, no stairs in sight, I found myself almost at the lake, almost to Navy Pier and I turned to see the PRETTIEST view in Chicago. Not an overstatement. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t hold it in. I ran home and put the New NEW Riverwalk Tour into the computer and that was that.

This is going to be a really pretty tour, a really educational tour, a funny tour and it will provide you the best photo you have ever taken. Seriously. Can’t miss.

I can’t promise I’m not going to up and change the schedule next week when another idea hits, but Chicago is killing it so hard lately – it’s like Chinese food – as soon as I eat, I’m hungry again.



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