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The Sinking of the Eastland

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The Sinking of the Eastland
America's Forgotten Tragedy. By Jay Bonansinga. (Citadel: 2005. Pg. 320.) ISBN: 0806526483

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - August 29, 2005

The sinking of the Eastland is a vital, yet overlooked aspect in the history of Chicago and the entire United States. On July 24, 1915 the SS Eastland, a steamship filled with Western Electric employees, on their way to a company picnic, capsized while still at the dock. There were about 2,500 passengers on the ship at the time. 844 men, women, and children died in the tragedy. Until the events of 9-11, this event is counted as one of the worst disassters on the American mainland, in terms of loss of life, from a single disaster.

The Sinking of the Eastland - America's Forgotten Tragedy, Jay Bonansinga not only chronicles the events leading up to the disaster, the event itself, and the inquires that followed, but he also gives names and faces to the countless dead. Bonansinga tells the story of the Eastland tragedy through the stories of the men and women who boarded the ship that fateful day. In the process he also examines the state of maritime safety in the wake of the Titanic disaster that occurred a scant three years earlier, and how the push to add lifeboats to the Eastland may have help make an already unstable ship deadly. In addition, in exploring the events leading up to the sinking Bonansinga also provides an overview of what life was like for the men and women, mostly immigrants, who worked for the Western Electric, and the impact that the deaths of so many had in the neighborhoods and communities from which the workers hailed.

For many, this book will be an eye opener, both in terms of just learning about the disaster, and in terms of discovering how bureaucratic corruption and labor unrest may have contributed to the tragedy. Surprisingly, very few people have ever heard about the Eastland save for those who have a family connection or who chanced upon The Eastland Disaster Museum in Wheaton Illinois, or stumbled upon it while perusing a maritime archaeological magazine or other texts. For myself, I first learned of the disaster in the mid 1980's from a folk song, aptly titled The Eastland which was written by Tom and Chris Kastle. By such odds means knowledge is sometimes gained. Since then I've always been curious about what really happened... At long last my curiosity has been satisfied with Bonansinga's The Sinking of the Eastland.

The Sinking of the Eastland - America's Forgotten Tragedy is an admirable addition to the body of work that is classified as popular history. Bonansinga is best known for his fiction writing, and he brings the skills honed in the fiction world to the crafting of this eminently readable and engaging narrative that includes an assortment of photographs related to the disaster. While written for a general audience, the text includes extensive endnotes that will guide interested parties toward more extensive accounts of the tragedy and to resources should they wish to pursue independent research into the event.

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