The first divers on the scene and the last to leave is how the Eastland
Disaster Historical Society describes Iver Johnsen and his son Walter.
The story of the Eastland disaster and the Johnsens’ part in the recovery
was told to the Duneland Historical Society on Thursday, October 21 at the
group’s fall dinner at the Library Service Center by Andy Johnsen. He is the
grandson of Iver and nephew of Walter.
58 Members and guests enjoyed the 6:30 dinner, which was catered by
Popolano’s, and were joined by others for the program.
The Eastland was one of several ships which carried passengers from Chicago
to Michigan City. On July 25, 1915, employees of Western Electric Company
and their families were to board the Eastland, the Theodore Roosevelt or the
Petoskey for a day-long outing. 7,000 people were expected.
People began to board the Eastland, which had a capacity of 2,500, at 6:30
a.m. When it reached capacity about 7:10 people were directed to the other
Problems developed almost immediately as the Eastland began to list, right
itself, then list again and finally to roll over into the Chicago River.
Passengers and crew began to jump into the river. More than 800 people lost
their lives including 22 entire families. The death toll was greater than
that of the Great Chicago Fire.
Iver Johnsen lived at U.S. 12 and Wagner Road in Westchester Township, where
he had a strawberry patch, from the early 1920s until his death in 1952 at
age 81. He also was a fisherman and mended fishing nets.
But in 1915, at the time of the disaster, he and his family were living in
South Chicago. He was a well known Great Lakes hard-hat diver and the family
story is that a special train was sent to bring him and his equipment to the
site of the shipwreck. He was accompanied by his son Walter, 17, who was
also a diver.
Andy Johnsen showed the diving helmet and metal “slippers” which divers wore
to keep their feet down. All together a diver’s equipment could weigh 200
pounds. A team of two people above known as tenders controlled the pumps and
lines. Signals were given by pulling on the lines.
At the scene, divers retrieved the victims by tying ropes to the bodies and
bringing up more than one at a time. Johnsen was credited with retrieving at
least 100 bodies.
After the rescue and recovery was all over, he was presented with a badge of
appreciation from the Cook County Coroner’s office.
Iver learned diving from his brother Andrew in the late 1800s and his career
included many jobs for the mills; the last one was for Gary Works of U.S.
Steel in 1945 when he was 75 years old.
His son Walter continued diving into the early 1950s. One of his diving
experiences was at Churubusco, Indiana on March 21, 1949 where he helped in
the search for a turtle, nicknamed Oscar, reported to be as big as a dining
room table top and living in nearby Fulks Lake. A website for “Churubusco
Turtle Days” says he spent two and a half hours in the lake but gave up when
he sank to his chest in muck. The lake was later drained and no turtle was
Two other sons of Iver, Roland and Iver, Jr. (father of the speaker) worked
with their father and brother as tenders.
The Duneland Historical Society will meet at 7:30 p.m. November 18, 2004 at
the Library Service Center when the program will be “Joseph Bailly’s Fur
Trade Journal, 1799-1802” presented by Dr. Randa Duvick, associate professor
at Valparaiso University who is translating Bailly’s journal.