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Recent NIU graduate uncovers film of Eastland disaster

February 26, 2015
A view of the capsized S.S. Eastland approximately 75 minutes after the disaster (Courtesy EDHS)

A view of the capsized S.S. Eastland approximately 75 minutes after the disaster (Courtesy EDHS)

Nearly 850 people died on the Chicago River in 1915 when the S.S. Eastland capsized at the dock. On the heels of the discovery of the first-known film footage from that accident, a recent Northern Illinois University history graduate discovered more, chilling footage of the disaster showing the recovery of some of the bodies from the passenger ship.

“I saw the television interview on the topic, and Ted indicated he was pretty sure there was more footage out there,” said Alex Revzan, referencing an interview with Ted Wachholz, executive director and chief historian of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society (EDHS). “I searched through the British Pathé digital archives and found footage that looked similar to the footage uncovered earlier.”


Alex Revzan

Alex Revzan

Revzan promptly contacted EDHS to share and validate his discovery, and Wachholz quickly confirmed that the video was, in fact, from the Eastland disaster. In the background of the last few seconds of the video is the Petoskey, which officially validated the video. The Petoskey was one of five ships chartered for that fateful morning, docked directly west of the Eastland, and its crew members aided in the rescue efforts.

“The discovery speaks a lot to the research skills Alex learned at NIU and how he’s putting those skills to practice,” Wachholz said. “He showed good research skills, intuitive, creative thinking and diligence in searching through volumes of video clips to find the footage.”

Revzan, from Earlville, earned a master of arts in history in December, focusing his studies on Europe and public history. He was a member of NIU’s History Graduate Student Association.

Wachholz added the discovery “significantly adds to the historical record of what Chicago and the nation know about the history of the Eastland disaster.”

“This is really where the footage I found is very different than the previous clips uncovered by Jeff,” Revzan added, referencing clips from EYE Film Instituut Nederland brought to light by Jeff Nichols. “In those first two the focus is on the ship itself, while in this third one, it is the victims who are centred. This fact is what I think is the cause for the much more visceral reaction that people are having to these new images.”

The new footage first shows a young woman in a white dress being pulled from the hull. Later it shows other people being pulled from the Chicago River.

“This second discovery of digitized film from the Eastland disaster stretches our imagination further than ever before. The scenes in the video are chilling and heart-breaking. They jar your emotions much more than the videos viewed earlier this month,” Wachholz said.

Early on the morning of Saturday, July 24, 1915, thousands gathered along the Chicago River for Western Electric’s fifth annual employee picnic. The S.S. Eastland—known as the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes”—was part of a fleet of five excursion boats assigned to take the employees, families and friends across Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Ind., for a day of fun and fellowship.

But the festivities were short-lived and quickly turned tragic as the ship, docked at the Clark Street Bridge, rolled over into the river at the wharf’s edge. More than 2,500 passengers and crew members were on board that day, and 844 people lost their lives, including 22 entire families.