On July 24, 1915, the S.S. Eastland was docked on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle streets. It was an excursion vessel that was chartered for the day by the Western Electric Co. for their company picnic. Thousands of employees, many of whom were Eastern European immigrants, had been anticipating this event for months – they dressed to the nines and made their way downtown in time for the early morning departure.
An atmosphere of pure joy soon turned to nothing but horror and tragedy. The Eastland, later discovered to be a poorly engineered vessel, rolled over onto its side while still docked on the river. 844 people ultimately lost their lives by drowning or being crushed to death. 7 whole families were lost and many people were left widowed, childless, or orphaned. Victims were trapped in various areas of the ship and much of the rescue efforts focused on trapped passengers. This is, by far, Chicago’s worst tragedy, yet why do most Chicagoans have zero knowledge of this moment in our history?
I discovered the Eastland in 1999 and I encountered it thanks to a website hosted by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society. EDHS is a small non-profit organization run by Ted and Barb Wachholz – literally. This fantastic couple, with a direct connection to the Eastland, voluntarily work their fannies off in their home office during their spare time to help educate folks about what happened. Amazing. As I read about what happened, I found myself wanting to learn more. Over the course of a few hours, I became obsessed with learning about the details of how such a tragedy could have happened – I needed to know more about the fate of specific individuals and families. And I was dumbfounded by the fact that I claimed to be knowledgeable in “all things Chicago”, yet I had never heard about the Eastland. Wow.
Reggie (pronounced Reggae) Bowles, was the 17 year old son of the Western Union wire chief – he lived at 3812 N. Springfield Ave. and owned his car/bike garage at 3950 W. Irving Park Rd. When Reggie heard about the Eastland, he jumped onto his bike and motored down to the scene to see how he could assist in the rescue efforts. He volunteered as a diver and explored the hull of the Eastland (where many divers refused to go) and used an oxy-acetylene torch as his main tool. Between morning and dark Reggie brought 40 victims to the surface. He came to be known as the “human frog” because of the time he spent in the water saving so many lives. That’s Reggie in the photo up above – it was taken the morning of the disaster and you can see he is still wet and wrapped in a blanket. Thanks to Reggie’s grandson who donated it to the Eastland Disaster Historical Society and thanks to EDHS for letting me use it here. I think about Reggie often, but I especially think about him when I go grab a brew at the Independence Tap which is located just doors down from Reggie’s garage.
The exterior of this building exudes Chicago history. It is a unique corner tap with even more unique terra cotta border decorations. During the early 1900s, at the time when Reggie was around, the site was that of a carriage repair shop. The current building was constructed in 1921 and, during Prohibition, it was listed as a dentist office owned by Jas Blair. The Blairs lived above their corner office. During the 1950s it was a bar called Fitzgerald’s, which later became the Sports Corner, which later turned into Florence Sullivan’s, a fireman’s bar, owned by William Triptow. William named his bar Florence Sullivan’s after his wife of the same name. They got into the bar business thanks to her dad – he owned a bar called Sullivan’s on Montrose Ave. Florence Sullivan’s claim to fame was that it was the first tavern in Chicago to carry the German beer called DAB (Dortmunder Actien Brauerei). In 1998 a kind man by the name of George purchased the property and named it The Independence Tap after nearby Independence Park. Looking for the perfect mix of neighborhood sports corner tap? Then this is the place for you. Even better, George realized the demand for craft beer so the bar is loaded with delicious brews to get you loaded. Out of the way for most folks, yes, but the I-Tap is your kind of place once you discover it.
Taverns and history, this is what this blog is all about. But the Eastland is just as much a passion of mine as uncovering a bar’s shady and exciting past. Connecting the two was a must (and it doesn’t hurt the the 4th of July is upon us and we get to explore a bar with independence in the name). I think about that tragedy almost everyday and while I dwell on the victims and the tragedy, I almost immediately turn to the everyday Jane’s and Joe’s, the public servants that risked their lives, and people like Reggie Bowles that turned an ordinary day into a heroic effort. This July 24th please do me a favor and take a trip to your corner tap and raise a glass in honor of the 844 lives lost, countless lives effected, and all the heroes that rose to the occasion on this fateful day in Chicago history.