Susan Q. Stranahan writing for Smithsonian Online gives an excellent account of the tragic events of the SS Eastland, which rolled over while docked in the Chicago River in 1915. The death toll was appalling and most of those who died were under 25. It was a sensational story in the papers yet it faded. The Titanic, which sank in 1912 is still remembered today while Eastland is just barely remembered. So what happened?
Titanic became a symbol for the age she was built in, part Gilded Age, industrial, and the last embers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The ship became iconic and achieved immortality, something rare in historical memory. James Cameron’s movie cemented that in recent years. And the high money fetched in authentic Titanic memorabilia shows how strong that memory still is. Mention things like the Children’s Blizzard (1888), the General Slocum disaster(1904) or the 1918 flu pandemic and you get stares. Mention things like the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and that still has historical memory especially for people in Northern California that still live in its shadow.
One argument for the loss of Eastland memory is that there was no one rich or famous aboard. Possible but I do not think that is why it is forgotten. It is forgotten perhaps because the tragedy never reached a certain level that ingrained itself like some disasters do. Why is it that an old Great Lakes freighter is remembered while other ships that sank in those cold waters not? A song by Gordon Lightfoot called Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. While some knew about the tragedy in the news, it was this song that put it into a national consciousness. Titanic had books, songs, plays and movies. The Eastland has a few books, historical societies, newspaper records, and testimony at hearings. Yet it got no national memory because while tragic it simply did not stick into the historical memory. We may never know exactly why. And that is what historians and historical societies are for, to make sure such things do not pass into the realm of forgotten.
And even if there was someone famous or rich on Eastland that day, that is no guarantee it would be remembered beyond a certain radius. Historical memory can be shocking in its forgetfulness. All we can do is try to shine a light on what happened so that people do not forget what has happened before.
Source: The Eastland Disaster Killed More Passengers Than The Titanic And The Lusitania. Why Has It Been Forgotten? (27 Oct 2014,Smithsonian.com)