WTTW tonight Eastland: The Shipwreck That Shook America

With sound and editing by Andrew Twiss, score by Steve Rashid, and additional design and surround sound by Sam Fishkin, EASTLAND features rare footage from the day of the disaster and CGI enhanced re-creations of the event that occurred in the Chicago River 105 years ago today.

EASTLAND: THE SHIPWRECK THAT SHOOK AMERICA is the chilling story of how hundreds of immigrant factory workers and their families had no idea that the steamship they boarded for a leisurely summer cruise had a history of near-capsizings. Ship owners packed the Eastland with unsuspecting women and children who ultimately drowned inside the overturned steamer in the Chicago River.

Yet, the rich and powerful men who were responsible for the carnage got away with it.

EASTLAND combines story lines of immigrant exploitation, greed, corruption, a cover-up, and hundreds of casualties in one of America’s worst maritime tragedies. In addition, it features previously censored newsreel footage.

First-generation relatives of victims recount how the tragedy affected their families for decades while original court documents dug out of the National Archives reveal that the Eastland’s owners knew of the ship’s stability problems months before the disaster. Yet they rolled the dice as innocent immigrant passengers boarded on July 24, 1915 for a Western Electric company picnic.

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“There was no iceberg, no torpedo, no act of God—someone surely did something wrong,” says Michael McCarthy, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who spent 10 years researching his book on the Eastland disaster, Ashes Under Water.

McCarthy is one of more than 30 historians, authors and relatives interviewed for this detailed investigation into how a summer day’s excursion turned catastrophic and decimated Chicago neighborhoods. The 55-minute program exposes how the Eastland’s well-connected owners manipulated the legal system to their advantage and walked free as well.

EASTLAND includes extremely rare film footage of the disaster’s immediate aftermath found hidden among unlabeled European film archives for decades. Survivors who had scrambled to safety add vivid details of the Eastland’s horrific sideways tumble into the grimy Chicago River.

Add one State-of-the-art computer animation illustrates how the unstable steamer dramatically seesawed back and forth before rolling over, killing 844, mostly women and children, in a matter of minutes.


Producers Harvey Moshman and Chuck Coppola showcase rare photos of first-responders, including Western Electric Nurse Helen Repa, who took charge at the scene with such tenacity that she was described as a ‘badass’ by Jay Bonansinga, author of The Sinking of the Eastland, America’s Forgotten Tragedy.

David Bowles, vividly describes his grandfather Reggie’s heroic efforts and repeated dives in the fetid river to recover nearly 40 victims from the darkened hull of the overturned steamer— feats that led newspaper reporters to dub him, “The Human Frog”.

Graham Lee details how his great-uncle, Jun Fujita, an intrepid Chicago Evening Post news photographer, captured iconic images of the pain of rescuers and parents, stunned as they cradled the smallest victims in their arms. Fujita, a Japanese immigrant, was forever affected by what he saw that day.

One of America’s foremost personal injury attorneys, Robert Clifford, describes the many ways that “the fix was in.” Clifford explains precisely how those responsible escaped conviction, fines or penalties of any kind and draws comparison to David versus Goliath battles that occur in America’s courtrooms today.

EASTLAND provides rare scenes of Chicago life in 1915—the 4th largest city in the world at that time, due to the huge influx of Eastern European immigrants. The Eastland’s passengers were among the workforce at the mammoth Western Electric factory on Chicago’s edge – a company so vital to American communications it was referred to as the “Silicon Valley of its day.”

Elsewhere, the city that had been celebrated with the mammoth 1893 World’s Fair, also revealed her dark side. Pickpockets rifled through the victims’ clothing on the River’s dock and at the central morgue, as well as robbing the parlors of survivors’ private homes where mourners gathered for wakes.

EASTLAND producers Moshman and Coppola, who spent three years researching and gathering interviews on this project, include scenes filmed in Canada aboard the SS Keewatin – the last floating Great Lakes steamer of the Edwardian period in existence. The documentary is a winner at IndieFest and the New York TV & Film Festival.

WTTW – PBS features Eastland – The Shipwreck that Shook America Friday, July 24 at 9pm Central.

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