Frank Goyett, Patty Gill's grandfather who survived the disaster, shown four years after the event in 1919, while he was on occupation duty in Germany after WWI. | Courtesy Patty Gill

July 24, 1915 was a rainy morning, and the Eastland was one of five excursion boats filled to the brim with Western Electric employees who worked at the massive Hawthorne Works complex in Cicero. They were on their way to an all-day company picnic and outing in Michigan City, Indiana.

On board the Eastland that fateful day was the great-grandfather of L.J. Hauser Junior High music teacher Patty Gill. Accompanying him were and his three sons, one of whom was Gill’s grandfather, Frank. 

As passengers were still boarding downtown at a dock on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle streets, the Eastland began to list and then rolled over on its side. 

While many of those on the dock side of the boat got to shore without much difficulty, some walking over the side of the boat, many of those of the Chicago River side of were trapped under the boat and drowned. 

A total of 844 people died. The boat had about 2,500 passengers on board in all. It remains the city’s greatest loss-of-life tragedy.

Many of the passengers did not how to swim and some were crushed and suffocated.  The ship was a mere 19 feet away from the wharf when it capsized. 

Gill’s great uncle, Charlie Goyett, who was just 16 years old, was one of the fatalities. But Gill’s great-grandfather, George Goyett; her grandfather, Frank, who was 18 at the time; and Frank’s brother, Lyle, survived.

Gill suggested that the Riverside Public Library book the presentation by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society and offered to split the cost for the program; she is listed as a co-sponsor of the library presentation.

Two granddaughters of an Eastland survivor will deliver the presentation at the library. The program will also feature three motion picture film videos taken in 1915 of the disaster and its aftermath, photographs, a firsthand narrative of a survivor and a video of interviews done decades later with a few of the survivors.

George Goyett was a foreman at Hawthorne Works and his three sons also worked at the massive plant. Frank and Lyle Goyett were toolmaking apprentices there, while Charlie was an office boy.

Growing up, Gill didn’t know much about the tragedy other than that her great uncle died in the disaster.

“My grandfather never talked about it, and my dad never talked about it,” Gill said. “We did have a visual of a family tree, and brother Charlie was just this broken branch on the family tree, and in small letters, ‘Died in Eastland disaster.'”

A month after the disaster, Gill’s great-grandfather wrote a firsthand account of his experience in the Western Electric News.

George Goyett wrote that he had just sat down in a chair on the Eastland’s deck on the river side of the boat when the boat began to list. As the boat tipped over, he was pushed down and was wedged between glass partitions of the ship’s saloon. 

“I managed to retain enough presence of mind to jam a handkerchief in my mouth to keep from swallowing any water,” Goyett wrote. “I lay doubled up there, unable to move, for what seemed like years, until the water has risen high enough to float the wreckage off me. I probably owe my life to the fact that a chair was jammed in above me which saved me from being crushed under the weight of the others who had fallen down.”

Goyett suffered only a dislocated knee. But he never saw his son Charlie again. Charlie had gone to the cloak room to check a bag and was downstairs when the Eastland tipped over.

Gill says that because her grandfather, Frank, who died in 1980, never talked about the disaster, she does not know how he survived. 

“Everything I have learned since has been through this Eastland Historical Society,” Gill said.

For years the Eastland disaster seemed to be forgotten. It was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier in the Atlantic Ocean where approximately 1,500 people died.

While the Titanic had many rich and glamorous passengers and sunk in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Eastland was filled with mostly immigrant workers, many from Cicero and Berwyn, and sank in a river just feet from shore. 

It did not capture the public’s imagination, but now the Eastland Disaster Historical Society is working to preserve the memory and history of the disaster. 

“Many of the people who perished were blue collar working class immigrants,” Gill said.

Last year’s 100th anniversary of the disaster brought the disaster back into wider public consciousness.

Eastland Disaster Historical Society presents:

“The Eastland Disaster: An Unparalleled Tragedy”

Riverside Public Library, Great Room

1 Burling Road

Sept. 27, 7 p.m.