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An unsung Great Lakes disaster comes to Duluth

The crew of the tugboat Kenosha, which was captained by John O'Meara of Duluth, played a crucial role in the response to the Eastland disaster. (Photo courtesy Eastland Disaster Historical Society and the family of Jun Fujita)2 / 5
This photo of a firefighter holding the body of a child captures what surely must have been the emotion of the day of the disaster. The event was captured on film by Jun Fujita, the first Japanese-American photojournalist. (Photo courtesy of Eastland Disaster Historical Society and the family of Jun Fujita)3 / 5
Fresh flowers and candles remained at the site of the Eastland Memorial as the editor and her husband visited Chicago during the last week in July. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)4 / 5
The set of “Eastland” is cramped, with the band located behind clothing suspended from the ceiling, to simulate the claustrophobia of the ship. There are trap doors in the set to allow actors to come up. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)5 / 5

On July 27, my husband and I rode the Amtrak from St. Paul to Chicago. As we walked along West Wacker Street among the hustle and bustle of rush hour, we noticed a memorial at North LaSalle Street with a fresh wreath, candles and vases of flowers. Being the photojournalist that I am, I snapped a photo even though I was on vacation. The flowers were in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the deaths of 844 people who lost their lives when the Eastland steamship rolled onto her side into the Chicago River.

As a Duluthian, I tend to think of the Edmund Fitzgerald or the Titanic when I think of shipping disasters. Though the next day our tour guides on both our double-decker bus and our architectural tour boat mentioned the Eastland disaster, I didn't think too much more about it.

Then when I returned to work on Aug. 1, the Budgeteer received a notice about a photography exhibit and musical on the Eastland disaster.

And so this Monday, exactly a week and almost to the hour, I again walked down the street. This time it was Superior Street and I enjoyed the more subdued "rush hour" of Duluth. I turned into Zeitgeist Arts atrium to see black and white photographs and learn more about this Great Lakes disaster. On the walls were 17 photos of the Eastland disaster. Some of the images were haunting, especially the photo of a firefighter holding the limp body of a child.

"This photo by itself is one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen," said Andy Bennett, creative director of Zeitgeist Arts. "It's really the look on the firefighter's face that's so haunting."

"It's definitely a different exhibit than we normally do," Bennett said. The photographs will be up until the end of the month.

The disaster hasn't gotten much publicity in popular culture. Some suspect it's because those on the Eastland were working class and second-generation immigrants, unlike the more wealthy passengers on the Titanic.

Early on the morning of Saturday, July 24, 1915, the SS Eastland was chartered to take more than 2,500 passengers across Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Ind. for a Western Electric Company employee picnic. But the Eastland, docked at the Clark Street bridge, never left. Instead it rolled into the river at the wharf's edge.

Ironically, it may have been the Titanic's sinking in 1912 that contributed to the disaster. Regulations were changed in 1914 to mandate that all maritime vessels have enough lifeboats for every passenger. The Eastland had just been refurbished with a cement deck and more lifeboats, making her top-heavy.

Hundreds of victims were placed in rows as families walked through the gruesome scene to identify their loved ones. "It's greatest loss of life on the Great Lakes, and the single largest man-made disaster on American soil in history, a tragic title it held until Sept. 11, 2001," according to Ted Wachholz, executive director of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

The Renegade Theater Company is performing a Minnesota premiere of "Eastland," a folk musical about the disaster. The show runs Aug. 6-8, 13-15 and 20-22 at the Teatro Zuccone.

Bennett gave me a sneak preview of the set. It had women's long dresses, men's suits and children's knickers hanging limp, suspended from the ceiling with buckets underneath the clothing. Bennett said the buckets will catch water as the clothing is soaked to give the set the illusion of being cramped and wet, as the victims were that day. The set is as haunting as the photographs in the atrium.

"It bridges a lot of musical styles in a interesting way," Bennett said. "It tells a nonlinear story. It's told in flashbacks and as the events are occurring so the world sort of blurs, and as the survivors are getting colder and more weary, their memories of what happened before start to bleed in. Their lives flash before their eyes; you see the events that led them to ship."

There is a direct Duluth connection. Captain John O'Meara of Duluth was in Chicago with his tugboat, the Kenosha. Instead of bringing the Eastland out of the harbor, it was used as a bridge to bring the passengers to safety.

I left for a vacation and returned with an added awareness of a Great Lakes tragedy that doesn't get as much recognition.

I recommend you stop by Zeitgeist Arts and look at the photos. I intend to see the musical.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at