Thursday, July 24, 2014

July 24, 1915: The Eastland Disaster

Leonard Olson, Eastland Disaster (Courtesy of imgur)
The man above is Chicago fireman Leonard E. Olson. In his arms, he holds the body of a young child who drowned in the Eastland Disaster. I had certainly seen this photo before, of a hero firefighter with a look of anguish on his face. We love these old photographs today. Not just the tragic ones, but any that show people in a completely different time, in completely different circumstances, behaving like...people. Just like us. This picture is just one second of Leonard's life. And not a very good second, at that. However, there is a very full life behind this one second snapshot. Here is a timeline of the life that Leonard lived:

Leonard Ernst Olson was born in 1869, in Chicago, Illinois, to Peter Olson and Elizabeth (Fisher) Olson. 
 (Courtesy of Tom O'Connor)
This is Leonard, with his mother, Elizabeth. If you're wondering about the thing on her head, the answer is that it was a common practice around the turn of the century for mothers to hold their children while they were photographed to keep them from fidgeting, but while staying hidden. Check out more photos of this practice at Retronaut.
(Courtesy of Tom O'Connor)
Leonard's mother, Elizabeth, was born in England and was married once and had one son, Leonard's half-brother, Maxwell, before she married Leonard's father Peter. Also an immigrant, Peter was from Norway and he worked in a box factory.
(Courtesy of Tom O'Connor)
On May 7, 1891, Leonard married Catherine Margaret Reardon, from Chicago. Leonard is seated at the bottom of the photo, while Kate is on the right. 

In October of 1892, Leonard and Catherine lost their first child, Edna, at only 5 months and 21 days old. 
(Courtesy of Tom O'Connor)
According to the 1900 US Census, Leonard was living with his wife and children at 488 N Homan Ave. and working as a box maker, the same way his father had. In the photo above, Leonard stands with his son, Frank, in front of a box truck.

According to his grandson, several years years before the Eastland disaster, in 1908, Leonard was awarded the Lambert Tree Medal for bravery by the City of Chicago for stopping a team of runaway horses while employed by the Chicago Fire Department.
(Courtesy of Tom O'Connor)
Leonard is shown above, standing second in line, with his fellow firefighters. 
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)
Then, in the early morning hours of July 24, 1915, the Eastland overturned in the Chicago River. Passengers aboard the ship were on their way to Michigan City, Indiana, for a company picnic. Many, though not all, were Czech immigrants, employed by Western Electric Company, and their families. The boat was filled beyond capacity and, as passengers stood on the upper deck, the boat began to tilt. At one point, several passengers ran to one side of the ship, possibly to wave at those on the River's edge, and the boat tipped completely on its side. Many were thrown into the water, and those who had already gone below deck, were trapped inside the boat. Though there was quick response from both a nearby ship and rescue teams, including Leonard Olson, 844 individuals lost their lives. At some point during the rescue, a photographer snapped the picture of Leonard that you see at the top of the page. 
(Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, 5/1/19717, p. 9)
In 1917, Leonard's daughter Ellen, or "Nelly," was recognized for her war-time efforts. This same patriotic daughter would go on to marry a few years later, lose one daughter at the age of four to an ear infection, lose another daughter at 18 from diabetes, and lose her own life to cervical cancer at the young age of 48. Ellen is shown in the photo below, on the far left. This photo was taken on the front porch of the Olson family home at 1035 N Leamington Street in Chicago, in a house that still exists today.
(Courtesy of Tom O'Connor)
On May 6, 1925, Leonard died at the age of 68. That was not quite 10 years after the Disaster, and one day before his 34th wedding anniversary. He left behind a huge family. He and his wife had 11 children, with 9 of them surviving to adulthood. One of his grandsons, Mr. Tom O'Connor, gave me permission to use his images.

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