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Lookingglass remembers Eastland tragedy

Thu, Jul 19, 2012

Solveig (Tiffany Topol), Bobbie Aanstad’s younger sister, mourns the dead victims of the Eastland disaster, represented by dripping, suspended clothing.

At 7:28 a.m. on July 24, 1915, Charles Kelly experienced a horror that he would never forget. In a letter written a day later, he said it was a “disaster too horrible to describe.” Although he never forgot, many people did.

Kelly was aboard the passenger ship S.S. Eastland. Minutes after the ship left its dock in the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets, it listed heavily toward the river and eventually turned over into the water, killing 844 passengers and crewmembers. It was Chicago’s biggest disaster in terms of fatalities, but somehow the Eastland tragedy has escaped the city’s memory.

The Lookingglass Theatre Company is trying to revive that memory with its world premiere production of Eastland: A New Musical. The show follows the real-life story of Norwegian immigrant Borghild (“Bobbie”) Aanstad, a 13-year-old girl who survived the Eastland disaster alongside her family. To contrast Bobbie’s story, scriptwriter Andrew White created the fictional story of Ilse, a young mother on board the ship with her husband and infant son. Unlike Bobbie and her family, Ilse’s whole family perishes, capturing the tragedy of an event that lasted less than 10 minutes.

“I’ve always thought the reason the Eastland disaster was never celebrated in history or mythologized in history was because unlike the Titanic . . . the Eastland was instantaneous,” said Jay Bonansinga, the author of The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy, the nonfictional book on which the musical was based. “It was like a collapse. It was just over in six seconds.”

Like many of Chicago’s greatest stories, it was a ghost story that clued Bonansinga in on the historical event. When he moved to the city 35 years ago, a friend took him on a tour through the Loop and paused at the Clark Street Bridge to tell Bonansinga that part of the river was haunted due to a shipwreck. Harpo Studios is also said to be haunted because it occupies the building that once acted as a morgue for Eastland victims. Bonansinga was hooked.

“The more I studied it and learned about it, the more flabbergasted I was,” Bonansinga said. “The average Chicagoan had no idea . . . it wasn’t celebrated like any other part of history, like the Chicago Fire or the Haymarket riots.”

White felt the same way. He was intrigued by the mystery of Chicago’s repressed memory, and he began to see the wider meaning of this tragedy.

“I was writing about it not long after Sept. 11, 2001, not long after Hurricane Katrina,” White said, “so we recently had two very prominent national disasters in our recent memory, and I was struck by that. Would there come a time when people didn’t know about September 11?”

There are countless memorials for the victims of September 11, but hardly any exist for the victims of the Eastland disaster. There is currently a historical marker on LaSalle Street and Wacker Drive with 100-200 words describing the event, but there isn’t much else.

The conclusion Bonansinga came to concerning the reason for what seemed to be a big hush-up was that the survivors and witnesses just didn’t talk.

“They were hard, salt-of-the-earth immigrants,” Bonansinga said of the passengers aboard the Eastland that day, “and the pain and the grief and the tragedy they kept locked inside because that’s their culture. They don’t talk about it.”

The majority of the Eastland’s passengers that day were working class Eastern European immigrants. They worked at Western Electric in Cicero. July 24, 1915, marked the day of the company’s grand outing to Michigan City, Ind. A whole fleet of passenger ships was to take the employees and their families to the picnic. Unfortunately, dressed in their Sunday best with picnic baskets in hand, they never made it.
Decades have passed since the disaster and nearly all the survivors have since died. Ted Wachholz, however, founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society in 1998 to gather information about the disaster and properly memorialize the victims.

“If it passes another generation, another two generations, chances are that the history is going to be completely gone, gone for good basically, so that was the premise that got us going,” Wachholz said.
Wachholz’s wife Barbara Decker Wachholz and her sister Susan Decker, both co-founders of EDHS, had a more personal reason to find out what happened to the Eastland victims. Their grandmother was Bobbie Aanstad, who died in 1991 at 90 and who was the protagonist in Bonansinga’s book.

Bobbie was a rarity among Eastland survivors. She shared her horrific story. But her granddaughters and Ted Wachholz wanted to know more.

“This really isn’t a history just about the 844 victims,” Wachholz said. “It’s not even a story about the 2,500 hundred people on the ship. It’s not even a story about the 7,000 people that planned to go on the picnic. It’s really a story about tens and tens – literally – tens of thousands of people and families all back in 1915 that were immediately affected in lots of different ways by this tragic event.”

Over the years, the society has gathered 3,000 folders worth of information about the victims, survivors, witnesses and family members, including photos documenting the disaster.

The Eastland Fellowship Authority at the Center for History in Wheaton, Ill., currently houses the only permanent exhibit of artifacts from the disaster. “It’s a story that needs to be shared and told. It’s amazing that it’s not told in Chicago very well,” said Alberta Adamson, president and CEO of the center. “You should never hide history.”

Some of the Eastland victims tried to tell their story but just didn’t know how. In his letter, Charles Kelly wrote, “to be in it is the only way one can realize the enormity of it.” The Lookingglass Theatre’s production is aiming to do just that by allowing the audience to experience the historic and far-reaching event and, hopefully, keep the memory afloat.

To learn more about the Eastland disaster, the Lookingglass Theatre is hosting a free panel discussion at 4:30 p.m. July 15, with Adamson discussing the varying causes of the disaster and the civil and criminal trials that followed it. At 4:30 p.m. July 22, Bonansinga and Wachholz will discuss history, memory and permanence: differences between the Titanic sinking and the Eastland disaster. There will be a temporary exhibit of Eastland artifacts in the Water Tower Visitors Center through August. Eastland: A New Musical is playing at the Lookingglass Theatre through July 29. For more information or tickets, please call 312.337.0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.

Colleen Connolly, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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