Friday marks 100th anniversary of S.S. Eastland disaster

It’s the biggest single loss-of-life event in Chicago history.

Friday is the 100th anniversary of the day the S.S. Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River - 844 people died.

FOX 32’s Larry Yellen took a look at the tragedy and what's being done to commemorate it this weekend.

“I think he's a hero. An unsung hero, as there were probably many, many, many, that day,” said Lisa Ludwig Drost, who is a survivor’s great granddaughter.

Drost is talking about her great grandmother's first husband, Jethro Beal, who drowned a hundred years ago Friday, on the S.S. Eastland.

Beal and his wife, Marguerite, were on a lower deck dancing to a band. 

“It was during this dancing that the boat tipped. Jethro was able to help Marguerite and push her through a porthole to safety. And could not fit himself to get through the porthole and ended up dying,” said Drost.

Stories like that will flow freely this weekend, as hundreds of people with connections to the Eastland gather to remember the tragedy. The steamer was one of several chartered by the Western Electric company to transport thousands of people to a company picnic in Michigan City.

More than 2,500 passengers boarded from the Chicago River dock near Clark and Wacker, but the ship began to rock from side to side.  

“People thought it was kind of cool that it was rocking, it was kind of like an amusement ride,” said Ted Wachholz of the Eastland Historical Society. “It leaned, rocked back and forth three times, it recovered three times, and then the fourth time it never recovered. Probably in a matter of two minutes just rolled 90 degrees into the river.”

“I think one of the things that was most impressive to me was the response of the surrounding community immediately following the event. The department stores who brought the blankets and sheets to wrap the people who survived and the bodies. The stores who brought forth their trucks to transfer the bodies to the makeshift morgue. The people who walked down the streets and tried to help anybody they could out of the water. Or covered them with blankets. That, to me, was so amazing,” Drost said.

Among those who rushed to the scene was a Chicago motorcycle mechanic named Charles "Reggi" Bowles. He's now remembered as "the human frog."    

Bowles was an expert swimmer who made repeated dives inside the hull, into locations fire department divers with oxygen tubes couldn't reach. He recovered 40 bodies from the Eastland.
“He actually would have kept doing that but the policemen saw what was going on, he was becoming exhausted, hypothermia was probably setting in, and the cops actually grabbed him and said, you’re done. This is it,” Wachholz said.

The 100th anniversary will be marked by ceremonies on the riverfront Friday and Saturday, including the lighting of 844 candles at 8:44 p.m. Saturday night.

Details are available on Eastland Historical Society's website.