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updated: 8/12/2014 10:34 AM

Arlington Hts. family preserves story of Chicago's Eastland disaster

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  • Borghild (Bobbie) Aanstad sits on the shoulders of an unknown male friend, circa 1917. She was 14 when she accompanied her mother, sister and uncle on board the Eastland on the morning of July 24, 1915. They survived and it was her stories that inspired her granddaughters to start the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

      Borghild (Bobbie) Aanstad sits on the shoulders of an unknown male friend, circa 1917. She was 14 when she accompanied her mother, sister and uncle on board the Eastland on the morning of July 24, 1915. They survived and it was her stories that inspired her granddaughters to start the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.
    Courtesy Eastland Disaster Historical Society

  • This photo of the Eastland was taken in the year before the boat rolled over on the Chicago River, killing 844 people as it prepared to sail across Lake Michigan for the Western Electric company picnic.

      This photo of the Eastland was taken in the year before the boat rolled over on the Chicago River, killing 844 people as it prepared to sail across Lake Michigan for the Western Electric company picnic.
    Courtesy Eastland Disaster Historical Society

  • Members of the U.S. Coast Guard place a bouquet in the Chicago River about the spot where the Eastland overturned 99 years ago on July 24, 1915. The Coast Guard was involved with the rescue of more than 1,600 people, while 844 died.

      Members of the U.S. Coast Guard place a bouquet in the Chicago River about the spot where the Eastland overturned 99 years ago on July 24, 1915. The Coast Guard was involved with the rescue of more than 1,600 people, while 844 died.
    Courtesy Mary Brennan

  • Ted Wachholz, chief historian and director of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, addresses people attending last month's commemoration ceremony near where the boat rolled over on the Chicago River.

      Ted Wachholz, chief historian and director of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, addresses people attending last month's commemoration ceremony near where the boat rolled over on the Chicago River.
    Courtesy Eastland Disaster Historical Society

  • Susan Decker of Arlington Heights, a granddaughter of an Eastland survivor and the co-founder of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, holds flowers before they are placed in the river.

      Susan Decker of Arlington Heights, a granddaughter of an Eastland survivor and the co-founder of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, holds flowers before they are placed in the river.
    Courtesy of Eastland Disaster Historical Society

  • Members of the U.S. Coast Guard place a bouquet in the Chicago River about the spot where the Eastland overturned 99 years ago on July 24, 1915. The Coast Guard was involved with the rescue of more than 1,600 people, while 844 died.

      Members of the U.S. Coast Guard place a bouquet in the Chicago River about the spot where the Eastland overturned 99 years ago on July 24, 1915. The Coast Guard was involved with the rescue of more than 1,600 people, while 844 died.
    Courtesy Mary Brennan

 
The story has been updated to reflect the correct name in a caption. It is Susan Decker holding flowers.

This whimsical photo of 14-year-old Borghild "Bobbie" Aanstad sitting on the shoulders of a friend served as something of a springboard for her descendants to make history personal.

Aanstad, along with her mother, sister and uncle, survived the Eastland disaster -- set to reach its 100th anniversary next year. Though she lived a full and active life until the age of 90, her granddaughters remain determined to preserve her story and those of thousands of others associated with the disaster.

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They started in 1998 when Barbara Decker Wachholz and her sister, Susan Decker, together with their mother, Jean Decker, all of Arlington Heights, formed the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

Their grass-roots organization, still based in Arlington Heights, now faces its most ambitious project in planning next year's 100th observance of the tragedy.

They gathered last month at the site of the disaster, near LaSalle Street and Wacker Drive along the Chicago River, for the 99th commemoration. As in years past, they worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to place a bouquet of flowers near the spot in the river where the ship overturned.

Ted Wachholz, Barbara's husband, serves as chief historian and director of the historical society. He describes the ceremony as a solemn occasion, allowing the many people who attend a chance to pay their respects.

Since that last observance, his role has been anything but solemn. Interest has ratcheted up in advance of next year's observance, which he calls Chicago's greatest loss-of-life tragedy.

"The Chicago Fire had a greater loss of property," Ted Wachholz says, "but not as many lives were lost as on the Eastland."

On the morning of July 24, 1915, thousands of people gathered along the Chicago River for Western Electric's fifth annual employee picnic.

They gathered early in the morning to get good seats on the Eastland, which was docked at the Clark Street Bridge.

Tragedy struck when the ship rolled over -- never leaving the wharf's edge. Of the 2,500 passengers and crew members on board that day, 844 people lost their lives.

With more passenger (non-crew) fatalities than the Titanic, the Eastland Disaster should have become a well-known part of local and U.S. history, but it still remains an obscure part of the city's history, somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Ted Wachholz and other society members recently addressed patrons of the Fox Lake Public Library and a senior center in La Grange Park about the disaster.

Already for next year, they have presentations booked at libraries in Mount Prospect, Fremont, Tinley Park, Lansing, Wheaton and Glen Ellyn. All told, they expect to make 50 appearances during the Eastland's milestone year.

"Through it all, we're remaining true to our guiding principles of preserving the family stories and personal legacies," Ted Wachholz says, "and connecting people to the thousands of people who were involved.

"We want to transform the way history is taught about the Eastland," he adds, "and make it personal."

For more information about the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, visit eastlanddisaster.org.

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