Learn More About the Eastland Disaster

March 9, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Posted in Events, Hawthorne Museum | Leave a comment
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Marianne Aanstad felt uneasy as she boarded the steamship Eastland docked at the Clark Street bridge on the Chicago River. Born in Norway, Mrs. Aanstad was familiar with ships, and something about this one didn’t feel right. Still, she boarded with her two daughters and her brother, Olaf, an employee at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero. Tragically, Mrs. Aanstad’s concerns turned out to be very real. Within a few short minutes, nearly 900 people would be drowned in the river’s murky waters.

The Aanstads were just one family among nearly seven thousand passengers boarding five steamships chartered by Western Electric for its annual company picnic The entire Hawthorne Works, normally open six days a week, was closed that Saturday, July 24, 1915, so that employees, their families and friends could enjoy the outing across the lake to Michigan City, Indiana.

The Eastland, a thirteen year old vessel with a history of listing (tipping off balance), began boarding at about 7 AM. Over two thousand men, women and children eagerly climbed the gangplank, strolled about the top deck or went below to view the ballrooms and cafes.  As it filled with passengers, the Eastland listed to starboard, toward the dock, but then listed back to the port side, toward the middle of the river. Noticing the tilt, people on the top deck moved away from the port side railing, but the ship remained off balance despite the crew’s attempts to fill ballast tanks to right the vessel. The list worsened, and panicky passengers swarmed up stairways and across the top deck. Finally, at about 7:28 AM, the Eastland rolled over on its port side, throwing hundreds into the water and trapping hundreds more on its lower decks. Horrified onlookers rushed to the rescue, but they could do little to save those inside the capsized hull.

The disaster devastated the tight-knit Hawthorne Works community and the towns of Cicero and Berwyn where most of the victims lived. The Aanstad family survived intact, but twenty-two entire families, parents and children, were lost. The final death toll rose to 844, almost three times the number who perished in the Chicago Fire of 1871. In Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric, the authors note that the “Eastland did not claim the famous and wealthy, as did the Titanic. Nor were any of Western Electric’s executives killed. Rather, this was a tragedy of the working class . . . More than half (of the victims) were women, most of whom were single and worked in the factory.”

To read through the victims obituaries is to begin to grasp the depth of the tragedy. Story after story tells of lost loved ones, of solitary survivors left without any family, of households left without a breadwinner, or of twists of fate that placed unlucky souls on the Eastland that drizzly July morning.

Today, the Eastland tragedy is nearly forgotten. Unlike the sinking of the Titanic, it has not been immortalized on film or in the popular memory. Perhaps its impact was so great that survivors could not tell the story, or perhaps a century of history filled with two world wars and whirlwind changes overshadows a single day’s events. But the Eastland’s victims deserve to be remembered. Their story sheds light on a time when life was harder, but connections between people were deeper, and we can draw inspiration from their ability to care and carry on.

If you are interested in learning more about the Eastland Disaster, join us at a reading and signing of the new novel about the Eastland, Merely Dee, on Monday, March 19 at 1pm in the Morton College Library.

The author of Merely Dee, Marian Manseau Cheatham, will be reading from her story about the 17 year old Dee, a Hawthorne Works employee and her harrowing  tale.

For more details on the event visit:



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