|The theme of reclaiming is examined with a wider lens in this piece by Jean Cozier, the founder of Awakenings. She writes about the Eastland tragedy that occured in Chicago — specifically, the near-forgotten women on the ship and the ways they suffered due to the patriarchal standards of the time. the details of the tragedy ring all too true for survivors of today, with common experiences of disadvantage and muddled memory. Jean writes with confidence and strength of heart, lending memory and attention to reclaim the stories of women who, like survivors, suffered more than they ever should have.|
Reclaiming the Eastland
by Jean Cozier
“Doubly Doomed, and Twice as Forgotten”
(Author’s note: I originally wrote this in July of 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Eastland disaster. Last week PBS aired a documentary on the Eastland, so the historical erasure process for this calamity has been at least partially challenged. However, this largest Great Lakes disaster in history still needs to be reclaimed as part of Chicago’s story.)
It’s 1 p.m. on Friday, July 24, 2015, and I’ve just lit a candle. As I write this, there is a memorial service beginning at Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, the scene of the Eastland tragedy on this date in 1915.
I remember very well when I first heard about the Eastland. Sometime in the 1980’s I was commissioned by several condo boards to research and write histories of their buildings, and I spent many afternoons at the Chicago Historical Society. It was there that I first read about the Eastland.
Western Electric, the nation’s largest telephone manufacturer, chartered the Eastland to transport hundreds of employees and their families to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana, on the other side of Lake Michigan from Chicago. The Eastland was the first of the five vessels chartered for the excursion. When over 2500 passengers boarded the Eastland, the ship overbalanced and capsized in the Chicago River, within full sight of hundreds of bystanders.
When the boat capsized, hundreds of employees of Western Electric were trapped under the water and drowned before they could be rescued. Bystanders stood along the river, throwing anything that might float into the water. Some people jumped in the river to attempt rescue, but for most, it was way too late.
I was astonished that I’d never heard about the Eastland before that day. How could anyone who lived in Chicago, who had taken the boat excursions that leave every day from the docks along the river, not know about a disaster that claimed the lives of 844 people, mostly women and children, there?
Today, the companies responsible for chartering the poorly designed steamship and arranging the transportation would have been called out in the media for their callous neglect of their employees’ safety. In 2015, Western Electric passed the buck for the chartering of the Eastland to an employees’ club, and while the courts rejected their argument, there was no settlement of any kind or amount made to any of the survivors or their families. Western Electric, and the company that built the Eastland, got off scot-free.
As Neil Steinberg wrote today, the women were “doubly doomed.“ Most of them didn’t know how to swim, and they were trapped and entangled in women’s garments of that period. Not unlike the enveloping, imprisoning garments forced on women in many countries today.
For years, I have I felt haunted by the ghosts of those women every time I took a boat excursion or walked over the Michigan Avenue bridge. Now, after having worked with survivors of rape and sexual abuse for over 20 years, I understand why. Because we, as women, are still doubly at risk for crimes of sexual violence, and as victims, twice as likely to be forgotten. Crimes against women, particularly crimes of a sexual nature, still don’t register the same way as crimes against men.
I wish I could be downtown at the memorial service right now. But I stopped for a moment to light a candle and share my thoughts. If we don’t like being doubly doomed, and twice as forgotten, it’s up to us to speak and bear witness.
Ladies of the Eastland, you are not forgotten.
Anyone who would like to learn more about the Eastland disaster can check the following sources:
Jean Cozier is the Founder of Awakenings. Please see her full bio here.