15.6.07

THE STORIES BEHIND THE STATISTICS. Chicago area writer Jay Bonansinga discovered that a most appalling maritime disaster occurred in the Chicago River in 1915. His The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy provides the material for Book Review No. 1718. Mr Bonansinga's book acknowledges George Hilton's Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic ("Just give me footnote glory") and at the same time fleshes out the story (which is not exactly forgotten in Chicago). The reader will discover that the Great Lakes excursion steamers developed as a way for the fruit express boats to collect some extra revenue from holidaymakers. Before refrigerated railcars were invented, the steamboats were the nearest thing to just-in-time delivery for Michigan and Door County cherries and peaches to Lake Michigan ports. The excursion business became the primary traffic afterwards. (An aside: yacht racing tactics are a survival of tricks invented by fishermen hustling the catch to the fish-market.) Eastland capsized shortly after Lusitania was torpedoed: once again much of the world at war and the United States at play. Some passengers had relatives at the Iroquois Theater fire a few years previously. (Midwestern tradition has the law requiring public places to have outward-opening doors with unlocking push-bars written in the blood of Iroquois Theater dead.)

The salvaged Eastland was converted to a naval training ship, Wilmette, which sank a captured German U-boat as a training exercise. (I was not previously aware of a second U-boat in Lake Michigan. There is a well-known one stuffed and mounted at the Museum of Science and Industry.) Mr Bonansinga located a number of Eastland survivors and some descendants, including a couple who only learned of ancestors on Eastland after their marriage. He also reports that some employees of Harpo Productions will claim their studio building, once the armory where Eastland dead were brought for identification, is haunted by ghosts in Edwardian pic-nic attire.

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