And You Thought it was the Fire: Worst Disaster in City’s History to be Remembered this Weekend

On a rainy morning ninety years ago this weekend, 2,500 Western Electric employees and their guests boarded the steam ship Eastland. They were headed for a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.

They had barely shoved off at their mooring spot on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle when the boat, probably due to a faulty, top-heavy design, rolled onto its port side and capsized.

More than 800 people perished.

The folks over at Eastland Disaster Historical Society host this weekend’s event, which, I must say, they make out to seem a bit like a party.

There will be a “two-day observance of the greatest disaster in the city’s history.” The weekend features a bunch of (presumably not top-heavy) Wendella boat rides up and down the river and a brief ceremony with the Coast Guard. They’re also publishing a book for which “ADVANCE ORDERS ARE BEING TAKEN!”

Nonetheless, I found myself thinking about a couple of things after spending some time browsing the photos in the Chicago Daily News’ online archive.

More, including photos, after the jump.

The first thing was how this event really highlights how much American industry has changed.

The number of employees employed by Western Electric who could congregate in one spot on a random summer morning for a company picnic is staggering. There were two other boats going that morning carrying another 5,000 people. Yeah, obviously corporate America has changed in the past century, but this really gave me a feel for the scale of it.

(And, what about the notion that employers had company picnics somewhere other than that patch of grass out by the parking lot with an extra-large bag of Doritos? They rented three steamships no less!That’s a time warp, too.)

But, another thing that hasn’t changed interested me more: the press photos. They followed the exact sequence the media follows today after a disaster:

photos of immediate disaster aftermath
photos of rescue efforts at the wreckage

photos of victims being saved

photos of victims being assisted at hospital
photos of shaken survivors
photos of shaken family members of victims
photos of fireman with deceased child

photos of volunteer efforts away from disaster
photos of people fundraising to assist disaster victims
photos of clean up of disaster
photos of crowd at disaster site

photos of standers-by sickened by disaster
photos of politicians assuring that they are reacting to disaster
photos of corporate spokespeople arriving at scene, responding to scene

photos of hearing about causes of disaster
photos of politicians decrying disaster

So, corporate America and travel have gone haywire since 1933, but disaster news coverage remains virtually the same (albeit with tv and the Internet added in)? Does that mean the way we tell stories to one another is timeless or are we do for some kind of revolution in that, too?

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