Subscribe to Unsung History so you never miss an episode!
Feb. 27, 2023

The Eastland Disaster

On the morning of July 24, 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company and their families excitedly boarded the SS Eastland near the Clark Street Bridge in Chicago, eager to set off for a day of fun in Michigan City, Indiana, during their annual company picnic. Tragically, the ship capsized just 19 feet from the wharf in the Chicago River, killing 844 people in one of the worst maritime disasters in United States history.

Joining me on this episode to help us understand more about the tragic Eastland disaster are Ted and Barb Wachholz, who co-founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society with Barb’s sister, Susan Decker, and their mom, Jean Decker. Barb and Susan’s grandmother, Borghild Amelia Aanstad, who went by Bobbie, was 13 years old, when she, along with her sister Solveig, Mother Mariane, and Uncle Olaf, survived the capsizing of the Eastland.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode audio is “Somewhere a Voice is Calling,” written by Arthur Tate in 1911. This recording is by the Revillon Trio in 1915 and is in the Public Domain. It is available via the Internet Archive. The image is a photograph taken on July 24, 1915 during the rescue operations; it is freely available via the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.





Learn more about your ad choices. Visit


Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. This week, on the fourth and final episode of our short series on Chicago history, we're discussing one of the worst maritime disasters in US history, the capsizing of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River in 1915. July 24, 1915, was the date of the annual company picnic for employees of the Hawthorne Works, a massive factory complex that was part of the Western Electric Company, located in Cicero, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. By 1915, the annual picnic had grown so popular that the company chartered five ships to take over 7000 passengers from Chicago to Washington Park, on the shores of Michigan City, Indiana, for what was planned as a full day of food, swimming, baseball, bowling, dancing, and even a roller coaster. A ticket for the 34 nautical mile trip was $1 for an adult, the equivalent of about $30 today. Early, on the morning of Saturday, July 24th, around 5000 Western Electric employees and their families began to gather near the Clark Street Bridge on the Chicago River. The SS Eastland, was first in line to depart since it had run late the previous year, despite its moniker as "The Speed Queen of the Great Lakes." The eager passengers, dressed in their Sunday best, started to board the Eastland around 6:30 In the morning, to prepare for the planned 7:30 departure. The Eastland had a reputation as a tippy ship. In July of 1904, it had nearly capsized after departing South Haven, Michigan, with around 3000 passengers aboard. The ship's owners made various modifications, including reducing the capacity, removing the cabins and repairing the hull; but in August, 1906, the ship listed again, leading to complaints being filed. The ship was sold twice in the next few years, with new owners making more modifications, including lowering the smokestacks. But in July, 1912, the Eastland again experienced a severe listing, this time a 25 degree list, while passengers were boarding in Cleveland. So on the morning of July 24, when the Eastland began to list to starboard, then straighten, then list to port, the passengers may have thought it was just typical for the Eastland. Around 7:00 AM, with the Eastland again righted, passengers began to stream onto the Eastland more quickly, at a rate of 50 per minute. At 7:05, there were over 1000 passengers on board, and as the crew started the engines, there was again a light list to port.  By 7:10, the ship was at capacity with 2500 passengers aboard, and the crew prepared to bring in the gangplank. But by 7:16, the listing to port was more severe, perhaps up to 15 degrees. The engineer ordered the starboard ballast tanks opened, and with the Eastland momentarily righted, the gangplank was finally drawn in. Although its listing to port continued, the crew prepared to depart even as water began to enter the ship. Around 7:25, the Eastland started to move away from the wharf, and the passengers started to move toward the port side of the ship. As listing to port continued and increased to 30 degrees, some of the passengers were asked to move back to starboard. But by that point, it was difficult to do so because of the angle of the floors. By 7:28, the listing was so extreme, at 45 degrees, that things were crashing over, a piano slid across the Promenade Deck. Whatever fun passengers had been having with the tipping up to this point, now they knew that something was wrong, and they began to panic. Passengers poured into the staircases, and some jumped off the sides. By 7:30, the Eastland had completely capsized in the Chicago River, just 19 feet from the wharf. The rolling had happened so quickly, that Captain Harry Pedersen had never ordered evacuation. None of the life jackets were handed out, and none of the lifeboats were launched. Ironically, the lifeboats were one of the causes of the rolling. After the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, there was a push to equip all ships with sufficient lifeboats. In March, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the La Follette Seaman's Act, which among other provisions, required ships to provide lifeboats that could accommodate at least 75% of the passengers. As the law was debated, the general manager of the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company warned that the extra weight of the lifeboats on upper decks could be dangerous in Great Lakes vessels with shallow drafts. He was ignored. The Eastland, to comply with the law, now carried 11 lifeboats and 37 life rafts, far more than it was designed to carry. The Chicago Fire and Police Departments, the Chicago Department of Health, and the US Coast Guard, along with hundreds of volunteers, immediately leapt into action after the Eastland capsized. But before long the rescue mission became a recovery mission, as the bodies of passengers who had been trapped underwater, were pulled to the surface. The 2nd Regiment Armory nearby was used as a temporary morgue, as families streamed in to identify their loved ones over the next few days. And there were so many loved ones to identify. 844 people died in the Eastland disaster, 75% of whom were under the age of 25. It was far deadlier than the Chicago Fire, which killed around 300 people. On August 14, 1915, the Eastland was raised from the river. It was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and converted into a gunboat named the USS Wilmette, which was used as a training vessel until it was decommissioned in 1945 and eventually sold for scraps. Joining me now to help us understand more about the tragic Eastland disaster are Ted and Barb Wachholz, who co founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, along with Barb's sister, Susan Decker, and their mother, Jean Decker. Barb and Susan's grandmother, Borghild Amelia Aanstad, who went by Bobby was just 13 years old when she, along with her sister Solveig, mother Marianne, and Uncle Olaf survived the Eastland disaster.

Hi, Barb. Hi Ted, thanks so much for joining me today.

Barb Wachholz  9:54  
Hi. Thanks for having us.

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:57  
Yes. So I am always excited to learn about Chicago history, and this is a piece of Chicago history that I just discovered a couple of years ago and was amazed by. So I am thrilled to be learning more. So I wonder if we could start Barb, by just asking you a little bit about your family connection to this piece of Chicago history, how you came to know about it and learn about it.

Barb Wachholz  10:22  
Well, my grandmother was 13 years old when she was on the ship with her family. And her little sister was nine. And they were with their mother, and their mother's brother who worked for Western Electric. So when I was a young girl, along with my sister, my grandmother, who was always just so bubbly, and just so up all the time, she always told these wonderful stories about when she was a young girl. And you know, we loved listening to all of her stories. And we do especially remember when we were young, she told us about this big ship that she was on when she was a young girl. And so as young girls ourselves, we were very fascinated with that. And of course, she refrained from all of the gory details that she witnessed as a young girl. It was incredibly traumatic. But she did tell us about how she had to tread water. She was in between decks, and was there with her family for many hours. And they they clung on to things. And Uncle Olav was trying to save other people, all the while making sure that my grandma and her little family were safe, that I remember my grandma, as a very young girl learned how to swim. And there's so many people way back when you know, they didn't take swimming lessons at the YMCA, like we all did, and like our kids do. But anyway, she learned how to swim on a summer vacation with family friends. And she always told my sister and I you know how important it is to know how to swim. Because again, when she was a young girl, she had to tread water, she had to try and do what she could. Anyway, so she helped to teach us how to swim up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when we would summer up there. And my own father, her son was a wonderful swimmer. So anyway, again, my sister Sue, and I grew up hearing these stories about the Eastland. And we always loved when she would tell us that story. And she remembered in later years, we always said, "Nana, tell us again, about when you were on that big ship," you know, so that, you know in a nutshell, that's how I know about it. And as I went to school, in later years, I never heard about it in history class, they never talked about it. And so I knew about it because of my family.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:48  
Ted, I know that you have done more of the looking into the the history and what happened. Can you talk some about the kinds of sources beyond just you know, the the family story that the way we know about what happened, what sorts of things we still have to go look at and can read about so that we can reconstruct what happened?

Ted Wachholz  13:10  
Sure, so our most authoritative resource is the work that Professor George Hilton did back in, well he published his book in 1995, "Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic." But that was after 20 years of research by himself and a crew of grad students that he had. And it's really a marvelous work. It's really a full, you know, 36 volume encyclopedia condensed down into one book. And what's really fascinating about it is he did all this research well before the advent of the internet. But his his work, by far and away is authoritative, as far as the amount of digging that he did through all the various archives. So that's, that's clearly something that we rely on regularly. But we also fill in a lot of the blanks from our own research through various newspapers, various archives. We've been very blessed through the years, that really having a great personal, professional relationship with a lot of organizations and agencies, mostly in the Chicago area that have opened up their doors to access their information. For example, the Cook County Coroner's Office, they have a ledger that they established exclusively for the Eastland disaster. You can imagine the coroner's office being inundated with over 800 fatalities in a single day. They wanted to open up a separate ledger to maintain the information for those victims so they, you know this is back in the early 2000s, probably  2000, 2001, they opened up their office and invited us down there. They made full size copies of these large oversized ledgers of all their information that they had captured back in 1915. Western Electric, we've had great success working with them. They've opened up their archives. One of their executives actually had quite a few documents and ledgers that he had personally saved. When the Hawthorne Works facility out in Cicero closed down, he saved a lot of the records, because he knew they were historic. And then he donated those to us. So that was a wealth of information too. And of course, we also have Red Cross records, which are fabulous, as far as providing firsthand, you know, information about the victims and their families. And we also have 1000s, literally 1000s of families all across the country, and even across the globe, Canada, Europe, have contacted us and provide us with just some wonderful historic information about their family, and just like Barb described previously here about her family, the names, the stories, photos. We've got 1000s of families that have provided that information. And it's I guess that's the benefit through the years, as we look back at being a very focused, not for profit organization. You know, there's lots of great institutions that preserve and share history. And they're all doing marvelous jobs. We've had a very niche focus that allows people to reach out to us and we've become this one stop shop, I guess I would call it or acquiring and preserving and sharing information about what is Chicago's greatest loss of life tragedy.

Kelly Therese Pollock  17:07  
So I wonder if either of you have thoughts on why it's not better remembered, why it hasn't been better remembered. As you mentioned, this is the biggest one day loss of life in Chicago, much bigger loss of life than the Chicago Fire, which everybody remembers and talks about. Why is it that something that happened right downtown in Chicago, must have been front page news in the city, isn't better remembered even within the city?

Barb Wachholz  17:35  
We have people ask us this all the time. And it really is it we wonder, too. And you mentioned, you know, you were sure it was front front page news in the city, it certainly was. And it also made headlines throughout the world at that time. World War I was ensuing. It was, you know, it was bad time in the world. But we still don't really know why Chicago kind of swept it under the rug. You know, I was talking before about when I was in school and never learned about the Eastland. But we all of course, everybody has learned about the Chicago Fire. I'm going to really let Ted take this too, because we I don't think any of us have a real answer as to why it's sort of became so obscure.

Ted Wachholz  18:21  
Well, we don't really have answers that are based on fact, but we do have a lot of, I guess hypotheses, including the fact unlike the Titanic, the Eastland passengers, there was no one that was rich or famous that was on board. They were very hard working blue collar first and second generation immigrants, mostly from Europe, that had names that people couldn't spell or pronounce. And and you know, they're just there wasn't anyone of notoriety, there wasn't anything glamorous about the passengers. There also wasn't anything glamorous about the tragedy itself. Not that anyone is looking for glamour in any accident. But you know, the Titanic hit an iceberg out in the middle of the ocean, the Lusitania was sunk by a torpedo. The Eastland was "just," I use, you know, quotes around the word just, the Eastland was just docked, partially backed at the wharf, downtown Chicago, and the Chicago River on a reasonably nice summer day, very tranquil waters of the Chicago River. It just rolled over. So there really isn't anything that you can romanticize and write, you know, these fantastic movies, feature films about but there's another aspect that we've talked about through the years too, and that is that how we deal with grief today was very different back in 1915. And each of these families really didn't have the resources available to them that we do now to process through. And it's not just even the the families that lost one or more of their members of their family. You know, even Barb's family that survived, it was a horrific day for them. They probably knew people that did perish so so the grief extended well beyond the families that lost people. Just think about all the rescuers and heroes that came to the scene too, and dove into the river and try to help and pull bodies out. You know, we talk about post traumatic stress disorder, and how it affects individuals today, There were 1000s of people that probably walked away from that day, with some level of PTSD. And part of it too, is the tragedy kind of got stretched out through several days. It happened in a matter of minutes. Yet, they had to centralize operations for the morgue. At one facility, they moved over 800 bodies into this facility in a summer day that wasn't air conditioned, and you had 1000s of people walking in and out up and down rows of hundreds of bodies trying to identify one or more of their family members. So even if you were at home in the suburbs, like out in Cicero, and weren't actually involved in the tragedy itself, chances are good you had to go to the this horrific morgue situation and and, you know, walk through that. And you just think about the personal devastation and grief that people came away with. So the widespread devastation, the widespread PTSD, across an entire community is probably a big part of what caused people to just bury the tragedy. And why would you want to talk about something like that afterwards? So there's a lot of these different things. Barb mentioned  World War I and and the fact that there wasn't anyone rich or famous that there's just a lot of different things that play into that.

Barb Wachholz  22:23  
I was also gonna mention that there are so many people now who do know about it. But there are still so many people who do not, who even live in the city, who have contacted us. We've had teachers contact us through the years to say, "Oh, my gosh, I was doing some research on Chicago history, and I read about the Eastland. And I'm embarrassed to say that I never knew about this. And I'm going to be teaching my students about this." We've had young students contact us through the years, the past 25 years, a lot of even junior high age but high schoolers too mostly, maybe junior high age doing their history fairs and things like that. And they were going to be doing their their project on the Eastland. And these are young kids who, which is wonderful, because they're learning about it at a young age. Teachers now hopefully are teaching more about this. One interesting thing is down in the city, when you take an architectural tour, we've heard that some of the docents talk about the Eastland as they're going by the site, and some do not. And I just do not understand why some don't. Some people have said that, "Well, they're they feel like it's gonna freak out the passengers." And yet, I think well, why would it freak them out? This is history. So for those people who do learn about it, when they come to Chicago, and they're on one of these tours, they're learning about Chicago's history. And again, you know, the worst catastrophe on the Great Lakes. So anyway, it's just very interesting.

Ted Wachholz  23:55  
And there's actually, Barb's comments remind me of another aspect of what you can look at. So the question of blame, which comes up regularly, especially with with tragedies, through the the years, immediately following the tragedy, the newspapers and general society blamed the passengers. The reports that surfaced initially said the ship rolled over due to the sudden rush of passengers to the river side of the ship, which if you pull the court transcripts, and read through the information from eyewitnesses that testified under oath and had no affiliation with any of the ships or or the companies that own the ships, they were unbiased, in other words. All of them testify that "No, there wasn't a sudden rush of passengers," which is logical because the ship was so crowded, you could hardly move about, let alone have a sudden movement of a large number of passengers. So that was all refuted in the courts under oath. Yet the newspapers picked up the first reports, and that's what kind of carried through the the days following the tragedy is that it was the passengers. And then you have the criminal trial that happened within less than a year after the tragedy. And they found no one guilty. You know, there were there were several defendants that were charged with various crimes. But in the end, the court found all of them not guilty. So you had the newspapers reporting that it was the passengers that caused the ship to roll over. You had the courts kind of validating that by charging people, but finding them all not guilty. So decades later, over a century later, you've got a tragedy that that was blamed on the passengers. So...

Barb Wachholz  26:09  
But then with the civil trial, it was the chief engineer who was found guilty, but he had already passed away. They said he was kind of the scapegoat for that. Anyway, I know there's lots of details pertaining to that.

Kelly Therese Pollock  26:24  
Yes. So let's talk a little bit about, you know, I think they say when a car crashes, something went wrong. But when a plane crashes, everything went wrong. This is one of those situations like Titanic, where it feels like everything went wrong, that this isn't a single thing that happened that caused this tragedy. So can we talk a little bit about these compounding factors that made it such a tragic event?

Ted Wachholz  26:48  
Yeah. So that's a real interesting question for us, Kelly, because we've we're in our 25th year now as a not for profit organization. And as we first started out, we didn't have the information and knowledge that we do have today. So when we first started out, when we talked about what caused the ship to roll over, we did our best, I guess, is what I would say. We basically took a shotgun approach, which, which is we listed, I think seven or eight different items that kind of all bled into this. They had just put about a dozen tons of new lifeboats on the uppermost part of the ship. They had recently added several dozen tons of concrete to again, the upper part of the ship. As Barb mentioned, they had pumped out the ballast that morning, which again, made it less stable. They crammed 2500, more than 2500 people on board the ship. We took the shotgun approach and said, "Okay, here's what caused the tragedy." There's, there's these seven or eight things that all just happened to come together that morning. We've always said it wasn't a matter of if it would happen. It was always a matter of when and it just happened to be that July 24, 1915, is when all those things kind of came together. So that was our, our way of approaching the cause of the tragedy. But through the years, with the additional research that we've done, the additional information that we've acquired, and also, we've worked a fair amount with the United States Coast Guard, who has a lot more nautical maritime expertise than we'll ever profess to have. So through the years, we've we've changed our approach now. And what we look at when we talk about the cause of the tragedy is that really, it was a matter of the fact that the ship was unstable and top heavy. It was not designed as it should have been, as it turns out. But most unfortunate for all the people that were involved in 1915, no one through the 12 years of service leading up to the tragedy, no one ever performed what is called a stability test for ships. Here you had a ship that was licensed to carry 2500 passengers, and not once in its 12 year history had anyone ever raised their their hand and said, "Hey, wait a minute. Is this ship stable in the water or not?" I actually I should I should retract that a little bit there. There were a few people, including a naval architect in 1913 sent a letter to the government department that handled the steamship inspections, and said basically, "If you don't address the situation with the Eastland, it's going to roll over." So here we have a very credible source, a naval architect, that was a well aware of the instability, top heaviness, with the Eastland trying to, you know, raise, draw some attention to it. But his memo, his words were ignored, basically. So anyway, it's to come back to what I was saying, we now really kind of point, it's not pointing a finger, it's trying to say, here's what we believe to be the case. If the ship had been inspected, at any point in time, especially leading up to the days preceding the tragedy, if the US Coast Guard, an agency that now is responsible for all inspections on United States waters, if they were involved, they would have required an inspection when it was first launched, and every single time that it had modifications made to it. They will not allow a ship on the water, whether it's the lakes, the oceans, rivers, they will not license a vessel, unless it has passed their rigorous inspection, which includes, most importantly, out of everything, a stability test. So in 1915, and all the years prior to that, through all the different modifications that took an already unstable and top heavy ship, and made it even more unstable and top heavy, never once had anyone performed a stability test on it. So if you've got a ship that has stability built into it, and has passed the inspection of the US Coast Guard, then all these other elements of the shotgun that I mentioned earlier, the fact that they put more lifeboats on, the fact that they put concrete on it, the fact that they put 2500 people on it, the fact that it had a very woefully inadequate ballast system, all of these other possibilities here. Bottom line, the ship should be able to stay upright, even when those things happen if if the ship is stable and is licensed to be stable. So I guess the short answer to that is we now talk about a basically a single concept, which is an unstable and top heavy ship. If the United States Coast Guard had been involved, the Eastland disaster would not have happened. And proof of that, by the way, is the fact that at least in the United States, there has not been a repeat incident that parallels the Eastland disaster. There has not been a ship that just rolled over. So that's, you know, a testament to the awesome work that the US Coast Guard is doing for the safety of the public for the last 100 plus years.

Barb Wachholz  33:26  
And the ship was also known as a cranky ship, they called it cranky. It had a lot of close calls when it was out on the different lakes, you know, some where you know, some people really thought, "Oh, my gosh, is that going to, you know, tip over?" Thank goodness, this didn't happen out on the lake that morning. You know, when it was on, it's when it would have been on its way to Michigan City, Indiana for that big picnic? I mean, can you imagine if that had happened, it would have sunk like the Titanic out on Lake Michigan. But yeah, it was known as a cranky ship and had a lot of close calls.

Ted Wachholz  34:02  
But again, no stability tests through all of that.

Barb Wachholz  34:07  
I imagine that a lot of people who are familiar with Chicago might be having trouble picturing just how this could be so deadly. So anyone who's been along Chicago River and there's a gorgeous, like, Riverwalk there now where this is, it's not a very wide river at that point. It's not a very deep river at that point. And so it's really hard to sort of wrap your mind around, "Okay, it tips over. Why couldn't everyone just get out?" And so I wonder, Barb, if you could talk a little bit about your grandmother's experience, because I think that's instructive in helping people understand why people couldn't just get out of the ship. 

 Sure. Sure. Well, they were very fortunate because they were on the side of the ship, that when it rolled over, they were on the top side. Okay. I remember my grandmother saying she could see through the portholes. They were not on the upper deck. They were in a mid deck, and that's why they were trapped for many hours. They were basically, you know, mid deck in a inner compartment, basically. Some of the people who were on that top deck as it rolled over, some people were able to start crawling over the rail. You've seen a lot of pictures, I'm sure of the ship on its side where people are on the side of the ship. Those people never even got wet. So my family again was fortunate enough that the ship did not sink any further into the river. You know, when you look at the pictures, you see, it's it's half under, half above. So water obviously did still come into the ship. And they were fortunate enough that it did not go over their heads. So now all those other people who were on that on the river side of the, you know, of the ship, those people so many of them, they said were trampled and and suffocated, because can you imagine all those people just on top of each other? Iceboxes going over, there was piano, everything was just on top of people. People were running, you know, for the staircases and many got trampled and suffocated there before they even drowned. So I think for my family again, I wouldn't be here today, most likely, if she had been on the other side of the ship. My father obviously would not have been here, my sister and I, Ted's and my children would not be here had she not survived, of course. So again, I think they were just so fortunate, and that was fate. And they were where they needed to be. And many, many hours they were lifted to safety by ropes through the port holes. So for all those other people on that other side of the ship, it was, you know, just so horrific. And because it turned over so fast, obviously no lifeboats were launched, but I don't even think that would have been of any help. No life jackets, you know, they were still in those big bins. So, you know, we count our blessings that our family was where they were,

Ted Wachholz  37:09  
I would just add to Barb's comments, we only know of literally a handful of people from historic record from like the newspapers or from our research or from the families, only a handful of people that survived that were on the river side of the ship. As it rolled over, you know, all the people, all the debris, just rained down on top of the people on that side. The water came rushing in, it was just a horrible situation to be in. And of course, the other thing that it's hard for maybe people to think about today, because we don't experience this at all today, but back in 1915, for a spectacular Saturday excursion and picnic, everyone, women, men, children, everyone was dressed in their formal attire. The men had suits and ties on, the women had the petticoats, the long dresses, lace up boots. So if you can imagine over 2500 people in a very tight quarters of the Eastland being thrown into a fight for your life situation. And you're dressed with all those heavy clothes that that don't help the survival rates whatsoever. It just would have been a horrible situation to find yourself in, obviously.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:42  
Could we talk a little bit about the the heroes of that day? I know there were a few people who were either seeing what had happened from the shore or people who were on the boat who were able to to help out. Could you talk maybe about one or two of those stories about the people that were really helpful?

Barb Wachholz  39:00  
One of the people who was a hero was my Uncle Olaf, who was on the ship, and he was the employee of Western Electric. And he big, strong Norwegian guy was also a fantastic swimmer. And he was awarded a Coroner's Star for saving 27 lives. So it was amazing to think and what my grandma said too, is that while he was trying to help other people, he made sure that his little family was okay, holding on to things and so forth. But he was doing what he could, right they are in that area where they were in between decks. So that is a very special thing to think that he saved so many lives in all of that chaos with his family.

Ted Wachholz  39:40  
I guess the question is, how much time do we have? Because there are so many different stories that we could jump into.  One place to start though is a a woman by the name of Anna Meinert, who was part of the Eastland disaster. She survived, but later she said, "You know, there were a million heroes that day. I don't think anyone knows their names," which is, you know, really, in a very few words sums up the situation. Most of the people that did help out that day, we may not know who was involved and what they did. The newspapers carried quite a few accounts, maybe a dozen or more. We've heard from a lot of families through the years as well. And I hate to jump in and cite a few because you cite a few and then that means we're ignoring all the others, right. But the the one that, for me, at least is just resonates with me as being something that I think I would be challenged myself to put myself in his shoes was a young 18 year old by the name of Reggie Bowles. He's he's well known throughout the history of the Eastland disaster because his story was captured. His family has been a big part of it through the last 25 years as well and helping supplement what the newspapers carried. But he was a young young man that had no involvement with Western Electric, no involvement with the excursion or picnic. But he was a fantastic swimmer. He became known as the human frog after this situation, but he was outside of on the outskirts of Chicago heard about what had happened. And because he knew that he could get into the river and help because of his expertise in swimming, he drove down on his on his motorbike, on his scooter, down to the wharf and proceeded to jump into the river multiple times repeatedly. And it's just the scene that I can't imagine. He wasn't a paid diver. As you look at photos from the Eastland disaster, you'll see the hard helmet divers in many of the photos. They were the professionals that were brought in to help recover the victims. But Reggie basically took most of his clothes off and just started jumping in as a complete volunteer. And you get the ship that's about the length of a football field, it's on its side, in the filthy pitch black Chicago River, boxes, debris, bodies, everywhere scattered throughout a ship, you have no idea as you're jumping in and going into the bowels of the ship where you are, you don't have flashlights, you don't have a mask. But he did this repeatedly dozens of times, hoping to find someone that he could save, but in the end, it was more recovery operation pulling victims' bodies from from the ship. But just the fact that someone would do that jumping in the river alone, even today, now that's been cleaned up. That would be difficult to do because it's a life or death situation you're putting yourself into. But back then with the condition of the river and the fact that he wasn't just jumping in the river. He was going into the hull of the Eastland, the overturned Eastland. It'is just a scene that's hard to wrap your head around. There were firemen that came to the scene immediately. The policeman, there were people that jumped from passing rowboats and so forth that helped out. Like I said, I know there's there literally are 1000s of people that did help out that day. Even the people after the fact that helped out at the centralized morgue, we consider them heroes, people that helped the nurses and doctors that dealt with the the people that were sick, the people that were mourning, the morticians, undertakers, just so many different people from so many different perspectives that helped out and I guess we look at them all being on the same plane. They're all they're all heroes, because they all you know, volunteered and helped out as best they could, regardless of what the situation was.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:23  
I wonder if you could tell people how they can get involved in the historical society or learn more.

Ted Wachholz  44:30  
Oh, sure. Thank you for that. So we do have a website they can visit: And we do things throughout the year. We do special events. We have a mailing lists that we send information out to keep people informed. We have a wonderful Facebook page and community. There's over roughly I believe 2500 people that are plugged in, many of whom have direct personal connection to the tragedy. So there's a lot of sharing that goes on there. We do presentations throughout this area. And now we're starting to do presentations remotely, thanks to the availability of zoom and Google meet. So we just, you know, we, we started out with the idea to develop a community of people that were interested in the history of the tragedy. It was a history, as you know, and that's kind of the premise for why we're even on this podcast with you, Kelly. It's such a, an unknown part of history, we are fairly comfortable in saying that if we hadn't started our efforts back in 1998, when we did, that the history of the tragedy would have declined even further from the public consciousness. But, you know, through not just our efforts, we have a lot of fantastic partners through the years that have helped us share the history of the tragedy, literally, with several million people. You know, the the history, we feel comfortable will be, you know, known and part of the community for generations to come.

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:16  
Well, thank you so much for all the work that you do on this. And thank you for speaking with me. I'm really glad to have gotten to know this part of the history and certainly I'll never be able to go on the river without thinking about it now. 

Barb Wachholz  46:31  
Oh, thank you, Kelly.

Ted Wachholz  46:31  
And thank you for carrying this story, because that's a big part of helping us continue sharing and preserving the history of Chicago's greatest loss of life tragedy.

Teddy  46:57  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. Please subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app. You can find the sources used for this episode, and a full episode transcript To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions, corrections, praise, or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate, review, and tell everyone you know. Bye!

Transcribed by

Barb and Ted WachholzProfile Photo

Barb and Ted Wachholz

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society (EDHS) is a charitable 501(c)(3) organization co-founded in 1998 by Susan Decker and Barbara Decker Wachholz, the granddaughters (and only grandchildren) of brave survivor Borghild Amelia Aanstad. Together with Susan and Barbara's mother, Jean Decker, and Barbara's husband, Ted Wachholz, these four were the EDHS founding family.