Grad student finds long-sought footage of 1915 Eastland disaster

Eastland Disaster

UIC grad student Jeff Nichols found the first film footage of the sinking of the S.S. Eastland, which killed 844 passengers and crew members on July 24, 1915.


The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River is coming up this summer. So it’s an appropriate coincidence that a UIC graduate student in history discovered the first film footage of the disaster, which took the lives of 844 passengers and crew among 2,500 aboard.

The film turned up as Jeff Nichols was doing research for his doctoral dissertation on Chicago during World War I, he said Monday. “I was taking a break from the grind of writing when I stumbled on these newsreels.”

The two Dutch newsreels, posted on a website memorializing the war, contained clips of the disaster that occurred when the top-heavy Eastland rolled over while tied to the dock on July 24, 1915. The boat was filled with Western Electric workers, families and friends headed for a company-sponsored outing. Nearly 300 children were among the dead.

The first film clip, sandwiched between reports on a suffragist parade, swimming and diving competitions and other news, lasts 50 seconds and shows the scene shortly after survivors were rescued and bodies removed. “Unlike other maritime disasters, people could walk to the river and see,” Nichols said.

The cameraman filmed firemen and police standing on the ship as it lay on its side in the water, nine-tenths submerged. At one point, two first responders carry an empty wooden stretcher out of the steamship. “It’s at a point near the end” of rescue and recovery efforts, Nichols said, “but it’s still fairly dramatic.”

The second clip, at the end of another newsreel, shows a huge stream of water being pumped out of the ship as it slowly rises to the surface. A final shot shows the Eastland again floating upright.


Jeffrey Nicols

“It makes an emotional connection to the tragedy,” says Jeff Nichols of the film footage.

Nichols’ research was hailed as a thrilling discovery by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

Its executive director, Ted Wachholz, said in a news release, “Over the past 16 years, EDHS has pursued numerous leads, driven hundreds of miles, sent emails, and made phone calls all while responding to reports of possible film footage of the Eastland disaster. All these previous leads have ended without any results.”

Wachholz called Nichols’ find “the single most important discovery over the past 100 years for those who are interested in the history of the Eastland disaster.”

Nichols said, “For me, the wonderful thing about this find is that it makes an emotional connection to the tragedy.”


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