v26-3 Edgewater Resident's Relative Filmed 1915 Eastland Disaster

Vol. XXVI No. 3 - FALL 2015

By Morry Matson

The centennial of the SS Eastland disaster was observed at the Chicago River this past summer on July 24, 2015. The SS Eastland was launched in 1903 as an excursion boat for tourist passengers on Lake Michigan. On July 24, 1915, workers from the Western Electric Hawthorne plant in Cicero boarded the vessel to sail to Michigan City, Indiana for a picnic. The boat had known stability problems. Due to federal regulations after the sinking of RMS Titanic that required more life boats and storage rooms overstuffed with life belts that could not be easily retrieved during an emergency, the “Speed Queen of the Lakes” was dangerously top-heavy and overcrowded with passengers. SS Eastland listed toward the Chicago River and rolled over. Many passengers abandoned ship and swam to safety, but 844 passengers were crushed to death or drowned in 20 feet of water. The Eastland’s captain and some executives from its shipping company went on trial for manslaughter, but were quickly acquitted. The relatives of the victims, who were mostly European immigrants, received no compensation. To date, the Eastland disaster is the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes, and the second worst loss of life after the Titanic. The last living survivor, Marion Eichholz of Elk Grove Village, died on November 24, 2014 at age 102.

The SS Eastland was eventually righted and sold to the U.S. Navy. It was retrofitted as a gunboat, rechristened as SS Wilmette in 1918, and used as a training vessel at Great Lakes Naval Base during both World Wars. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was transported on the vessel during wartime in 1943. The SS Wilmette was scrapped in 1947.

In February 2015, the only known newsreel film footage in existence of the Eastland disaster was discovered by a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and can be viewed at several sites on the internet. A young newsreel cameraman named Harry Birch (1895-1968) was on the scene of the incident in 1915. Birch also shot scenes at the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago. Later he worked as a cinematographer in Hollywood during the 1940s and early 1950s, and ended his career as the cameraman for the local TV show “Kukla, Fran & Ollie”, whose puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom, was a former Edgewater resident.

Harry Birch’s daughter-in-law, Marjorie Fritz Birch, currently resides in Edgewater. She was married to Birch’s son William, who also had a career in Hollywood as a cameraman. William Birch died in 2011.

The Eastland disaster killed more people than the Chicago Fire. Some of the victims are buried in local cemeteries near Edgewater – 13 at St. Boniface, 10 at Rosehill, and 6 at Graceland. Names of the victims and their burial locations can be viewed at the Eastland Disaster Historical Society website. A historical marker is erected at the Chicago River along the Riverwalk.