Only surviving film of 1915 Chicago ship disaster found in Amsterdam

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American Graduate student Jeff Nichols uncovered lost footage of the SS Eastland disaster in the archives of Amsterdam film institute EYE. Nichols found the film clips Thursday on an EU-funded website. The clips from the incident were lodged between other news items on a digitized Dutch newsreel.

The SS Eastland disaster took place in July 1915, when a ship carrying 2,500 people to a Western Electric company picnic capsized on the Chicago River in the middle of downtown Chicago. The top-heavy ship listed to the port side, hit the water, and sank twenty feet to the bottom of the river while still near the wharf. Of the crew and passengers on the ship, 844 people were killed. Nichols says he realized the significance of his discovery. "It's as easily recognizable to someone who cares about Chicago history as the Titanic, so I knew what I had right away," said Nichols. He expected people to be excited by the discovery, reported the Chicago Tribune. The first clip found goes for 55 seconds and depicts volunteers and emergency response walking on the ship's hull. The second clip is 30 seconds long and shows the vessel being righted. The University of Illinois-Chicago Ph.D. candidate was writing a dissertation on World War I propaganda when he found a copy of the only known footage from the catastrophe. Nichols then posted links of the footage to the Facebook page of the Eastland Disaster Historical Society (EDHS), which re-posted the footage onto its website. "We had always felt that video footage existed somewhere, but we were never able to locate it," said the EDHS. "These two short video clips are the first the EDHS has seen, and likely, the first the public has seen of the Eastland Disaster as well."

"The footage was given to the institute as part of the Jean Desmet collection by the film distributor's familty in 1957," explained collection curator Elif Rongen to NL Times. "The collection was brought from abroad and includes over 500 items. Desmet collected film clips and embedded particular clips among newsreels before distributing them in cinemas," Rongen said. "The news clips would have been showed in cinemas immediately after the disaster occurred, sandwiched between the other news of the time. In 1915 it would have been shown in quite a few places," she added. "This happens very often: that American films are found in Europe and nowhere else," said Rongen, identifying general neglect of newsreels as the leading cause. "The newsreel would have been so widely copied and distributed. There must be more copies, and possible a better copy elsewhere. But because it's not a feature film and embedded as a news item it is much harder to find."

Early last year the footage was republished in the Netherlands as part of the EU-funded European Film Gateway project, making the historical clips fairly simple to access. Rongen explains that it is easy for such clips to go undiscovered for long. "In a hundred hours of footage, there might be one item that's relevant to what you're looking for," she explained. "This is the case here. When they're restored and scanned they become more easily available digitally, but this is a gradual process and its not used for everything." Rongen said that the footage would have been cataloged in several places immediately after it was shown and that anyone looking for it would have found it. The copy given to EYE was cataloged soon after it was gifted. "If questioned, we would have found it in the database. I assume you can also find it in other institutions' databases," she said. Additional reporting by Zack Newmark.