New Eastland documentary recalls ‘Chicago’s Deadliest Day’

Eastland Disaster 1915 (Photo: Eastland Disaster Historical Society)

One of the worst days in Chicago history is the subject of a great new documentary.

“Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day,” produced and written by Harvey Moshman and Chuck Coppola, tells the tragic but little-known story of the steamship that capsized while docked at the Chicago River on July 24, 1915, killing 844 people onboard.

The 83-minute film features rare, previously censored newsreel footage from the scene, state-of-the-art computer graphics demonstrating how the ship rolled over, and interviews with more than 30 subjects, including three authors of books on the disaster. (Here is the link to a preview.)

Three years in the making, the documentary will have its world premiere on July 25 at 8 p.m. on Window to the World Communications WTTW-Channel 11. It will be distributed to PBS stations nationwide in early 2020.

In 2001 Moshman and Coppola produced “The Eastland Disaster,” a one-hour film for WTTW that won two Emmy Awards. (In my review for the Sun-Times I called it “one of the best documentaries ever produced for local television.”)

Eighteen years later they’re back with a much richer telling of the story, thanks to new research and scholarship on the subject and to a substantially larger budget provided by the nonprofit Chicago Marine Heritage Society and its chairman, Captain Dave Truitt.

“In short, we’ve created a more thorough version of this dramatic story that remains largely unknown to many Chicagoans,” said Moshman, a veteran Chicago producer and Evanston native.

Arguing that the needless deaths of the passengers and the shameful cover-up of responsibility that followed have been all but forgotten, the producers show the small plaque at the site of the disaster at Wacker Drive between Clark and LaSalle Streets as the only memorial to an event that took more lives in a single day than any other catastrophe in the city’s history.

Without regard to their safety or the long history of structural problems with the Eastland, more than 2,500 passengers were loaded onto the ship that fateful morning. They were immigrant factory workers from Western Electric’s phone manufacturing plant on their way to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Most of the 844 victims were young women and children.

But the horror didn’t end with their deaths. Due to inadequate legal representation and a cover-up by the rich and powerful owners of the Eastland, their families were never compensated for their losses.

Concludes Robert Clifford, the famed Chicago personal-injury attorney who analyzes how those responsible escaped conviction, fines or penalties of any kind: “The fix was in.”

Monday’s comment of the day: Mark Quinn: God bless Jim O’Shea; I wish him all the luck in the world on this quixotic undertaking.

“Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day”