For Jen & Rose – 100 Years Later

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the SS Eastland disaster. On July 24, 1915 the passenger ship with 2,572 day tourists rolled over into the Chicago River, taking 844 souls with her as she sank 20 feet to the muddy bottom. All on-board were families of Western Electric employees, gathered for a leisurely cruise to Michigan City, Indiana, for a day of fun and festivities. On board were three of my great-great-aunts, Rosalli (Rose), Johanu (Jen) and Elizabeth Kotovsky.

Elizabeth survived, but her two sisters drowned.

Standing: Jen, Rose (Jen and Rose drowned ), Elizabeth (Elizabeth was rescued), Beatrix and Anna. Sitting: Joseph, Andrew, Mary, Anna, Andrew, Jr. (Photo taken around 1915)

Outside of Chicago, this maritime tragedy is largely forgotten, but to this day it remains the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes. My grandfather mentioned Rose and Jen’s lives and deaths often as I was growing up, but with the 100th anniversary upon us I took special interest in the story, so yesterday I brought the kids to the Chicago River to say our respects and honor our relatives.

As we approached the Clark Street bridge, my emotions overcame me. Tears welled as I imagined the horrifying way Jen and Rose died. I had passed this spot hundreds of times before without knowing it was the exact place of their deaths. Here, 100 years later on a beautiful, sunshiny day, birds chirped, boats sailed, and most people on the river walk strolled past with no idea what happened a century ago.

The kids and I sat at the water’s edge and dipped our toes in. Evie and Mack asked strikingly specific questions that showed their compassion. “How did their mom and dad find out they died?” “Why didn’t everyone swim out of the boat?” “What did the sister who lived do??

As I sat along the river with my four children, I thought about my great-grandma Marguarite and great-grandfather Walter. They were supposed to be on the boat that day, but both of their mothers had morning sickness so they stayed home. How would my life be different if they boarded that doomed ship? Would I even be here? Would these four beautiful miracles of mine be here?? How many more cousins would I now have if Jen and Rose hadn’t died??

After I answered Evie and Mack’s questions (and pondered my own), I didn’t know what else to say so I asked Evie to lead us in saying the Our Father. It just seemed right, as I am certain Jen and Rose knew those words, too. It was a simple way to connect with them, and to connect my children to them.

Because we are, after all, family.

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1 Comment for this entry

  1. Donna R. says:

    I’m just catching up on summer reading and saw this entry. I love that you documented such an important incident for your family. So precious. So many Chicago residents
    have no information of this tragedy. Your kids are so beautiful in recent pictures…love seeing how big they are!!!! I need to check in more frequently.

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