1st United Church of Christ, 1000 Elgin Avenue. (Courtesy Google)

It was the ship disaster that killed more people than the Titanic, and it happened in the Chicago River 100 years ago on July 24, 1915. The sinking of the SS Eastland killed 844 people, the largest number of casualties in an inland ship disaster in U.S. history. 

“Of the victims, 70 are buried in Forest Park cemeteries,” said Diane Hansen Grah, executive director of the Historical Society of Forest Park. 

The disaster has other local connections.

The ship was chartered for a company picnic to take employees from the Western Electric Company in Cicero to South Haven, Michigan. Western Electric — which eventually became Bell Labs — was a regional employer of thousands of local residents in Forest Park, Cicero, Berwyn, Maywood and Oak Park. Many were Czech immigrants. 

To mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster, Hansen Grah and Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore owner Augie Aleksy are working with Ted Wachholz of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society to plan five special Forest Park events at the cemeteries, the library and the historical society exhibit space. The society plans an author panel, a children’s author event, a memorial dinner and a GPS cemetery tour.

 The disaster

Hundreds of picnickers arrived early in the morning of July 24, 1915 and boarded the SS Eastland on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle streets. Around 7:10 a.m., the ship reached its capacity of 2,500 passengers. When the boat began to list to the port side, crew members tried to adjust the ballast. The ship then listed to the starboard side, and passengers on deck rushed to the port edge, giving the ship momentum. It fell onto its side in the Chicago River, which was only 20 feet deep. Passengers, including families with children, were thrown into the water. Others were trapped under the deck in cabins that quickly filled with water. Rescuers took days to remove bodies and right the ship. In the weeks that followed, Forest Park’s cemeteries were filled with mourners and local newspapers listed the dead. In Forest Park, resident Richard Stork of 1027 Circle Avenue lost his daughter Gertrude. William Ristow, of 929 Lathrop Ave., also drowned. 

Local commemoration

The historical society will team up with the Eastland Disaster Historical Society to commemorate the centennial in Forest Park. Local events will be held throughout the year, ending on the weekend before the actual centennial.

 The Eastland Disaster Society plans events in downtown Chicago on the weekend of the anniversary, July 24-25. Local events start in Forest Park in April. 

“These events will tie into our Historical Society Centenary Project, which will honor residents whose families have been in Forest Park for more than 100 years,” said Historical Society President Jerry Lordan. 

The Historical Society will collect personal memories, family photos and recollections on a Facebook page for area residents. Not just the victims will be remembered. The society also wants to hear from descendants of the firemen, police officers, ship safety crews, U.S. Coast Guard members, divers and Chicago Public Health workers who helped with the Eastland rescues. Even a group of Chicago volunteer welders cut holes in the hull to help retrieve victims.

Author’s Panel: The historical society will present an authors panel on Sunday, April 12 at the Forest Park Public Library. 

Authors include Jay Bonanzinga, who wrote The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy (2004); Ted Wachholz, author of The Eastland Disaster (Arcadia Press);Michael McCarthy, author of Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and Shipwreck That Shook America. Also speaking will be co-authors Dennis Schlagheck and Catherine Lantz, who published Hawthorne Works (Arcadia Publishing) last year. New York Times bestseller fiction author Mary Morris will stop by on her book tour for her novel The Jazz Palace, (2015) which is, in part, inspired by her own grandfather’s witnessing the Eastland sinking. 

Children’s History Event: On Saturday, May 16, children’s historian and veteran actor Terry Lynchof Histories for Kids, in Orland Park, will give a free interactive presentation at the Forest Park Public Library called “Just 20 feet from safety: The story of the SS Eastland.”

Commemoration Dinner:  A dinner will take place Friday, July 18 at the historical society’s exhibit site, 1st United Church of Christ, 1000 Elgin Ave. Author Jay Bonansinga will make a short presentation. Local musicians will perform period music from the 1915 era. Photos and reminiscences from area residences will be displayed and audience members will be able to share personal connections to the Eastland. 

 Cemetery tours and GPS grave hunt: A tour of Forest Park and Hillside cemeteries of Eastland-related graves will be led Saturday, July 19 by Review columnist and local historian John Rice. Eastland victims are buried in almost every Forest Park cemetery. Along with victims, graves of some first responders and boat safety personnel are buried at Mt. Carmel in Hillside. Each grave site will be decorated with a commemorative flag for the centennial, and each site will have a GPS link for a walking tour. 

Forest Park Centenary Awards: The Historical Society of Forest Park celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015. On Oct. 11, the society will host an annual meeting and celebration dinner. The society will give out the Centenary Awards, honoring families who have lived in Forest Park for 100 years.A display of local reminiscences, photos, newspaper articles from 1915 will be featured. 

Historical Society in talks for permanent home

The Historical Society of Forest Park is in negotiations to possibly acquire a permanent home for the society's collection. Talks have begun with leaders of the congregation of the 1st United Church of Christ, 1000 Elgin Avenue, to possibly enter into a partnership with the society. The congregation owns the church building on the corner of Elgin and Harvard, and the parsonage residence to the south.

The church building could possibly be developed into a cultural center for Forest Park, said Historical Society Executive Director Diane Hansen Grah.

 "The town has a need for an arts space," she said. "The congregation members want to make sure the building is still part of the community and that their legacy continues." 

According to the congregation's website, the church was chartered in 1865 as the First German Reformed Church of Chicago, which ended up for 40 years on Hastings Street in Chicago. The church moved to Forest Park in the 1920s. The church sanctuary was originally built in 1927, with an addition built in 1955, the website says.

Hansen Grah said she would propose to the board seeking village landmark status for the church to preserve the exterior of the building, as well as the stained-glass windows.

The use of the church for a cultural space was put to the test last month when the society held a successful benefit concert, Jan. 21, featuring several Forest Park musical acts. Around 80 patrons attended. More concerts will be held there in the future, Hansen Grah said. 

Church leaders will meet with the historical society board at their Feb. 21 meeting to discuss the partnership further, Hansen Grah said.

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...