On a July morning in 1915, thousands of factory workers and their families boarded a steamship on the Chicago River bound for a Western Electric company picnic in Michigan.
But before they could even leave the dock, tragedy struck: the SS Eastland sank, leaving more than 800 dead. The Eastland Disaster rattled the city of Chicago and the nation, but details of the tragedy are now largely forgotten.
A new documentary hopes to change that. “Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day” features recently discovered footage shot immediately after the disaster, as well as a CGI rendering of the steamship capsizing.
Produced by Harvey Moshman and Chuck Coppola, the documentary also includes numerous reenactments of scenes before, during and after the disaster.
“We decided we had to show the boat tipping over,” says Moshman. “And to tell the story, we had to see people getting on board, we had to see what happened to them while they were on board, and that’s why we did the reenactments.”
The film also focuses on several characters who rushed to the scene in the aftermath of the tragedy. One was a Western Electric nurse named Helen Repa.
“As news spread that the ship had rolled, she jumped on the back of an ambulance, rode it down to the dock, and began immediately administering first aid, trying to revive victims who had been pulled from the water,” says Coppola. “Her whole demeanor is as a brave woman who took charge when it needed to be done. She’s a true heroine.”
Another is Reggie Bowles, a young man who the press dubbed “The Human Frog” after he pulled almost 40 victims out of the Eastland’s hull.
Using archival and present-day interviews with historians and descendants of Eastland victims, the film also traces the history of the steamship and its owners, who were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in a highly controversial out-of-state trial.
“Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day” premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on WTTW.
Below, a trailer from the documentary.