When most people think of the biggest disasters in Chicago history, the Chicago fire, gang violence and different riots come to mind. One of the most overlooked disasters is the sinking of the SS Eastland, and a new documentary, with quite a few Evanston roots, is coming out to shed light on the worst loss of life in Chicago history.
Evanston resident and award-winning producer Harvey Moshman again partnered with Chuck Coppola to create a new documentary on the Eastland. This one tells the basics of the story as their 2001 documentary on the Eastland did, but takes a deeper dive into this tragic event.
The documentary will premiere close to the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the Eastland in the Chicago River, with the loss of hundreds of lives. The ship sank on July 24, 1915, and the world premiere of the documentary will be July 25, 2019 – 104 years and one day exactly to the date of the original incident.
In an interview with the RoundTable, Mr. Moshman gave some information about the disaster and the documentary.
The S.S. Eastland was one of five ships set to take employees of the Western Electric Company and their families and friends across Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Ind., on July 24, 1915.
By 7:30 a.m. that morning, the Eastland was docked near the Clark Street bridge at full capacity of around 2,500 passengers and crew. Soon the boat began to tip a little, and people realized they were in trouble. The captain tried to warn the passengers, but it was too late, and 844 people perished.
One of the heroes of that unimaginably horrific day was 17- year-old Charles R. E. (who went by Reggie, pronounced with a hard “g”) Bowles. He worked in a motorcycle shop at Irving Park Road and Pulaski Avenue. The story of how he learned of this disaster is unclear. Newspapers were coming out every hour, but it would have taken 30 minutes to an hour for news to reach him that way. There is a good chance there was a phone call, but there were very few phones back then and there were only a couple, at most, on each block.
Regardless of how he heard, Reggie, nicknamed “The Human Frog,” motorcycled to the Clark Street bridge and dived in to help. He recovered 40 bodies.
While putting together this project, Mr. Moshman and his team found a replica 1914 motorcycle in Wisconsin. They bought it because it was cheaper than renting, Mr. Moshman said, and in a delightful coincidence, they found an Evanston license plate.
Even though this is Mr. Moshman and Mr. Coppola’s second documentary about the disaster that shook so many people, they were able to find new stories, like
that of Reggie.
“I had just finished another documentary … which was funded by the Chicago Marine Heritage Society,” said Mr. Moshman, “They were very happy with that, and I said if it’s incumbent upon anybody to do another version of the Eastland, it would be [with Captain David Truitt]. He agreed, and off we were running.”
This new documentary has some similarities to the first one, but it also brought along some new aspects and challenges.
Unlike the first documentary, which ran locally – and which ran annually on July 24 for 15 years, this one is scheduled to go national in the first quarter of 2020.
Also, for this production, the team of Mr. Moshman and Mr. Coppola were in different parts of the country – Mr. Coppola in California and Mr. Moshman in Evanston. Thanks to Google Docs, Mr. Moshman said, the two collaborated fairly easily. “Technology has been what has let this whole project happen,” Mr. Moshman said.
A much bigger budget from the Chicago Marine Heritage Society allowed this project to go deeper into the horrific events that unfolded on July 24, 1915. Captain David Truitt, who heads the society, has spent his carreer devoted to helping the Chicago Marine Heritage Society, said Mr. Moshman.
“First of all, [the Chicago Marine Heritage Society] funded all of it, so that’s extremely helpful,” said Mr. Moshman. They provided “a lot of advice and counsel along the way and a few contacts that I didn’t have in the maritime industry.”
The team found new information in “The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy,” published in 2004 and written by Evanston resident Jay Bonansinga, and in “Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America,” written by Michael McCarthy and published in 2014.
In addition, the team received access to historical records and newly found newsreel footage from 1915.
Evanston librarians Kathleen Lanigan and Julie Rand contributed to the research, Mr. Moshman said, and the team searched many additional libraries and other sources of historical information. “You would be surprised where you find information on the Eastland Disaster,” he said.
Andrew White, a member of Looking-glass Theater’s ensemble, wrote “Eastland A New Musical,” staged in 2012. The Eastland Disaster Historical Society is looking to put it on stage nationwide, possibly starting in Duluth, Minn.
“Because it’s such a tragic story, ‘Why is it so little known?’ is what everyone wrestles with.” said Mr. Moshman. Andy White said the inspiration for him was how it was possible that he and his friends had never heard about this.
Mr. Moshman says he believes that part of the reason why the event is so unknown is that it was just so horrible an event that news reporters did not want to cover it. Some of the footage was even banned in Chicago, for different reasons. Regardless of why there was not much coverage, it is important to start telling the story, he said.
Other Evanstonians – and a few Evanston places – are part of the documentary family. Steve Rashid composed the music; Sam Fishkin was the sound designer and mixer; Scott Brewer handled the visual effects. Myron Siciak of Elmer’s Watersports shot the underwater footage, and Al Williams recorded field audio. KloboMedia handled all social media. The producers consulted with Dick Lanyon, Jeff Davis and Walt Keevil on historical matters.
On camera, Mr. Bonansinga and Mr. White discuss the Eastland Disaster. An alley off Poplar Avenue north of Central Street serves as the location for Reggie Bowles’ motorcycle shop. Jackson and Lake streets in Evanston were also used.
Mr. Moshman’s pitch for viewers is sweet and simple:
“Come see it,” Mr. Moshman said. “Yeah, I would say it’s definately worth your time.”
“Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day” premiers at 8 p.m. on July 25 on WTTW.