Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ancestral Resilience

My sister Lucia sent me this amazing website about the Eastland disaster.

The Eastland Disaster was a part of our family history because our great grandfather and uncle were divers who worked in the recovery of those who lost their lives that day.

It was on the morning of July 24, 1915, the lake passenger steamer Eastland cast off from the Chicago River dock at the Clark Street Bridge with 2,572 people aboard (some reports had the numbers closer to 3,000).

As soon as she cast off, the ship listed away from the dock, righted herself, listed again and slowly rolled over on her side and settled on the mud of the river bottom. (Why it happened has been a topic of debate for many years.)

Some of those on board were able to jump into the water and swim ashore, but 844 passengers lost their lives before rescuers reached them, making the Eastland disaster the worst in the city's history in terms of loss of life.

If you go to this website, you can read accounts from survivors and eyewitnesses. My great grandfather's story was there, and I'll copy it here as it shows amazing resilience (which really interests me), and because he was my great grandfather. I always ask the students I teach at NYU to find family history or cultural history that would teach them a little something about resilience, so here's my own family history with a perfect example.

Charles Gunderson

...It was up to me to live or die...
Charles Gunderson was the proprietor of Chas. Gunderson and Son Submarine Divers. His biggest job was diving for bodies of the Eastland Disaster. He dived almost continuously for four days, staying underwater two to five hours at a time, groping his way into the pleasure boat's grand ballroom where many were trapped.

Charles Gunderson came closer that any of the divers, grave though their peril, to losing his life. The story brought back to the surface with him was the most thrilling of all.

"I was down in the dance deck," he said, "when I got mixed up with some twisted stanchions. I had jerked the signal cord a half dozen times before I discovered it must be fouled above - and I hadn't started jerking it until I was satisfied I couldn't get free by myself."

"It was as tight a place as I ever had been in. And then I made another discovery. My air tube had fouled, too, and I couldn't breathe. I was down there alone without air. Those above had no way of knowing what I was up against. It was up to me to live or die."

"I kicked until I must have been blue in the face, and then, all of a sudden, I was free. I took a step and the signal cord was cleared. Air began to come through the tube, but not enough of it to do me much good. You can bet I gave the cord a jerk!"

Gunderson lost consciousness on the upward journey, and it was a half hour before he recovered. Still weak, he insisted on going into the hull again.

Copyright © Chicago Tribune
reprinted from the Chicago Tribune
Please direct questions and comments to the Eastland Disaster Historical Society at info@eastlanddisaster.org0

There's a website that tells ghost stories and they have a page related to the disaster and the armory building, where most of the dead were taken during the disaster. This building had been incorporated into Harpo Studios, the production company owned by Oprah Winfrey. Folks who work at the studios claim that the ghosts of the perished passengers are still restless in the new studios. According to reports, many employees have had strange encounters that cannot be explained, including the sighting of an apparition that has been dubbed the “Gray Lady”. There's lots more on the website so if you like ghost stories, check this one out!

1 comment:

edhsinc said...

The Eastland Disaster is not a story about a ship. Rather, it is an amazing tale of tens of thousands of people (including the Gundersons) whose lives were affected in some way by the tragedy. We are thrilled that you and your sister and your respective families have discovered the incredible heritage of the Gundersons and the role placed upon them by Chicago's greatest tragedy.

We have a special appreciation for the Eastland Disaster divers, as they put their lives at risk and worked for days in some of the worst conditions imaginable. (In the photo shown via web link above, Charles Gunderson is the third diver from the right.) The divers' photos and stories are also included in two books recently written about the Eastland Disaster: the photo essay released in 2005 as well as the non-fiction novel released in 2004.

We hope you and your sister will once again visit our web site and perhaps even subscribe to our mailing list.

Ted Wachholz
Executive Director

Eastland Disaster Historical Society
PO Box 2013
Arlington Heights, IL 60006-2013
1-877-865-6295 (office)
1-877-865-6295 (fax)

Transforming history education -- in and out of the classroom.