Newberry to Complete Acquisition of Eastland Disaster Collection


The Eastland, docked at the Clark Street Bridge, rolled over into the river at the wharf's edge. Photo provided by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

One of the most tragic moments in Chicago history will soon be fully housed in the Newberry Library’s expansive collection.

The SS Eastland overturned in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915, and took the lives of 844 people who had gathered as part of a Western Electric Company employee outing. The story doesn’t end there, however. A wealth of documents remain that depict the aftermath of the tragedy, everything from coroner’s records to American Red Cross archives and employment documents from Western Electric.

Until 2019, these items were stored by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society and mostly inaccessible to anyone interested in learning more about the tragedy. The full collection will soon be added to the Newberry’s stacks and digitized thanks to a grant from the Illinois State Historical Records Advisory Board (ISHRAB).

“These items will tell a deeper and richer story of the Eastland disaster,” said Alison Hinderliter, Lloyd Lewis Curator of Modern Manuscripts at the Newberry. “The creation of finding aids will encourage Eastland descendants, scholars, students, and the general public to explore these primary source documents.”

The ISHRAB grant will fund the work of Stephanie M. Riley, a PhD candidate in History who wrote her MA thesis on the Eastland disaster. She will scan the items and add descriptions and metadata. The collection will begin being placed onto the Newberry’s website by September 2023. 

Additionally, the items will be available free of charge for viewing in the Newberry’s reading rooms.

A portion of the collection includes photos and documents from the families of disaster survivors and victims. These include memorial cards, letters, personal diaries, excursion tickets, and other ephemera.

“These are one-of-a-kind items found in shoeboxes and attics,” said Ted Wachholz, Executive Director of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, which has been a repository of the Eastland’s records since 1998. “They’re documents and photos that haven’t been widely accessible until now.”

Click here to explore the Newberry’s digital collections.

A ledger from the Western Electric Company shows a list of Eastland disaster victims, employment data, and surviving family members.