Chesterton Tribune

Historians hear story of the Eastland ship disaster recovery

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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 two ships.

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 found.

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.


Posted 10/27/2004