One thing you can say about Florence Brown’s older sister is that she is mighty secretive. Another is that she is a very fortunate woman.

She has been since at least July 24, 1915. That was the day she fell off the Eastland into the Chicago River and was saved by unknown rescuers. Eight hundred and twelve other passengers were not so lucky; they died that day aboard the excursion ship. In terms of lives lost, it was the worst disaster in Chicago’s history.

Florence Brown’s sister tried hard to forget about that day. For 70 years she told no one that she had been aboard the ill-fated ship. Then one day she let it slip.

“I’d never heard she was on the Eastland,” said Florence, “and I was teasing her because she was afraid of water. I said, ‘What are you, afraid of drowning?’ She said, ‘I fell off a boat once.'”

Florence told the story on Sunday at the future Chicago Maritime Museum in the North Pier Terminal on East Illinois. It was the culminating day of the “History From the Heart” writing contest, which members of the Chicago Maritime Society set up to tap memories of the days when the lake meant more than a summer day’s recreation.

“These are stories that we would not have heard about otherwise,” said Emma Kowalenko, an oral historian who helped the Maritime Society set up the contest. “And it’s nice for the people who submitted them, since now they’re saved for posterity.”

Kowalenko and other organizers set up the contest last year and ran a series of writing workshops in January to encourage senior citizens to record their memories of Great Lakes shipping, yachting, or fishing. By the time of the contest deadline on Valentine’s Day, 112 entries had been received from 85 writers.

The writings were collected in a bound volume that will be available at the Maritime Museum. For Maritime Society members, the collection is one step toward publicizing a forgotten chapter of Chicago history.

“The story of Chicago maritime history is largely untold,” said Carolyn Johnson, executive director of the Maritime Society. “For example, when we ask foundations for money, some of their members say, ‘Why maritime history?’ Yet Chicago was once the major world port.”

After it opens later this summer, the Maritime Museum may help redress that disregard. From the museum’s glass-enclosed terrace there is a fine view of the skyline and the Ogden Slip. On the terrace, on Sunday, there was a photo-panel display reproducing a view of the mouth of the Chicago River taken in 1893; the scene bustles with ships and smoke. In the main museum room two small exhibits had already been set up: a guide to Illinois lighthouses and photographs of the Eastland disaster.

The room was otherwise bare; pipes and ducts were exposed overhead. Bare light bulbs illuminated raw plasterboard. But the audience that showed up on Sunday was there to listen, not to look. They applauded as the ten contest winners were awarded certificates; then they heard six of the winners read from their entries.

The first-prize winner, Geraldine Thorpe Jung, read an invocation of love for the sea, an account of her family’s maritime history. Her grandfather commanded a Great Lakes passenger ship, her uncle a car ferry. Her father commanded fireboats in Milwaukee and Chicago and piloted the first American ship to pass through the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

“The deep vibration of the motors becomes a counterpoint with the rhythmic plunge and wash of the ship and the rushing white swirl of her wake,” she read. “There, in the night, the pilothouse becomes a dim, hushed shrine, the compass light a glowing vigil. Inside there is no sound but the straining of the wheel, the low spoken orders from the officer: ‘Hard right.’ And the wheelsman repeating: ‘Hard right.’ The water, the stars, the ship, and those who sail in it are one, in a bonding as old and elemental as time, a bonding my heart understands.”

“I loved it, I just loved every minute of it,” she said later of her family’s maritime past. “There was so much I couldn’t get in–the smells, the sounds. If I had been a man I think I would have gone into it. But it was just unthinkable then for a woman to go into shipping.”

She lamented the decline of Great Lakes shipping. “You could look out when I was growing up and anytime you looked out on the horizon you’d see a ship, or three or four.” Her family has left the shipping business completely.

Jung’s story was a good counterpoint to that of Florence Brown, whose sister was on the Eastland. “She said, ‘I don’t ever want to talk about it.’ But she told me the story, and I said, ‘This should be written down, at least for the family.'”

Florence’s sister agreed, but only on the condition that she remain anonymous. In her story, Florence calls her “Ellie.” Ellie was “a very independent young woman, especially for those days. She’s still a spunky lady.” She worked for the Western Electric Company, which had rented the Eastland and another ship to take employees on a daylong trip to Michigan City. She lived in a rooming house and didn’t tell her parents she was going on the trip.

“We girls were so excited the day before we scarcely got any work done for talking about what to wear and how much fun we were going to have,” Ellie told her sister. She remembered the dress she wore, and that it had pockets: “The company told us not to carry our pocketbooks because we’d be playing games at the picnic grounds–relay races and other team games–and it would be too easy to lose a pocketbook if you put it down to compete.” She remembered bringing a snack: a ham sandwich, a banana, a cupcake.

“It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, just beautiful. We were all congratulating ourselves on our luck with the weather. It was going to be a memorable day.” The passengers were excited. There were two excursion boats, but no one wanted to wait for the second one. “They just kept coming, and coming, and coming up the plank.

“My friends and I were standing around talking and laughing when we noticed benches and deck chairs moving slowly across the deck toward the railing. That was so strange! I never thought about the ship tipping, and I don’t think anyone else did either right away.”

To this day, no one knows why the Eastland started to tip as she lay docked next to the Clark Street bridge. Ellie remembered that passengers ran to the lower side to see what was happening. And she remembered how high spirits and curiosity turned to terror. “Everyone ran there, to see what was going on. I remember falling toward the water, falling in. I couldn’t swim. The water closed over me.”

Ellie could not remember being rescued. She woke up in a hospital next to other survivors. She gave a false name to a man who came around making a list of survivors. “Mama would be so upset, and Papa would blame everybody and make such a fuss. Then I remembered I hadn’t told them I was going and they didn’t know I was on board. That was fine. I didn’t want to talk about it. I decided they didn’t have to know.”

Ellie left the hospital and went home. “‘I wanted to get away from all of it–the crying, the people’s faces, and the questions. I just wanted to get home and forget about it.’ ‘But Ellie,’ I said, ‘Mom and Dad knew you worked for Western Electric. They would have asked.’ ‘Papa did ask me if I’d gone on the picnic and I told him no I hadn’t. I didn’t lie. We never got to the picnic.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.