The Lost Hero of the Eastland Sinking

It would become the most famous image of the Eastland Disaster, reprinted in every book and article on Chicago’s worst disaster, with the dubious honor of being the greatest loss of life in a single shipwreck in Great Lakes’ history. Of the hundreds of snapshots taken during this tragedy, this photo by Japanese-American photojournalist Jun Fujita would be Chicago history’s most poignant.

The photo: a stocky man in wool pants, suspenders, and a short-sleeved shirt cradle the limp body of child in his arms. Our eyes aren’t drawn to the drowned child, or the out-of-focus hump of the Eastland‘s hull’s beneath them, or even the rescuers in the background. The man’s face consumes our attention.

Despite the man’s 40 or 50 years, he looks as innocent and confused as a child himself. His eyes are raw and shimmering with tears. There’s no poetry in his face. It’s an image of a man in emotional free fall. Sadness would be something. Pain would be something. It’s just a face washed blank by horror and senselessness.

For those unfamiliar with the Eastland Disaster: in July of 1915, 2,572 passengers piled aboard a passenger steamer, the SS Eastland, ready to enjoy a day’s excursion to Michigan City, Indiana. The crowd bubbled with excitement. For many, this was the first recreational holiday they had ever enjoyed.

The Chicago Sunday Tribune. July 25th, 1915.

The Eastland filled up by 7:10 AM. At 7:28 AM, the top-heavy ship began gently swaying from one side to another on the wharf’s edge. The Eastland swayed. Then it lurched. Finally the Eastland flopped to its port side and capsized into the muddy Chicago River. A thousand people fell directly into the river and another thousands found themselves trapped below decks in instant tombs. By the day’s end, 848 bodies would fill makeshift morgues across the city. The Eastland‘s story would be told and retold and re-retold over the century, sometimes forgotten in the erupting chaos of World War I. For the next century, this haunting photo accompanied every retelling of the Eastland‘s story.

Who was this man?

A quick reverse image Google search plucked the photo from several online collections of historic photos, tastefully presented by the good people of the Chicago History Museum. The picture was the work of famous Japanese-American photojournalist, Jun Fujita. This information was included alongside the photo:

From Chicago History Museum’s Jun Fujita Collection, 2021

Leonard E. Olson.

It’s unfair that this man’s entire legacy comes down to a single photo recording what might have been the worst moment of his life. It was important to learn more about him, because Leonard Olson’s memory deserved more than this terrible photo.

Leonard E. Olson was born in Chicago and, 56 years later, would die in Chicago. He sprang from a Norwegian family of working-class craftsmen and apprenticed under his father as he grew older. He would become a skilled box-maker and pass on the trade to his own sons. Today, the box-making trade has been eclipsed by cardboard, plastic, and automated labor. In Leonard’s day, churning out strong wooden boxes was a very marketable skill.

Leonard (left) and son Frank (right) with handmade boxes, c. 1920

In 1891, a 22-year-old Leonard married Chicago-native Catherine Reardon, (sometimes spelled Riordan). The two had 11 children, and 9 of these would survive to adulthood. In the days before antibiotics, 9 out of 11 was pretty impressive.

Soon after their marriage, Leonard became a Chicago firefighter and joined Engine Company No. 85 as a pipeman. According to the 5th Edition of Essentials of Fire Fighting and Fire Department Operations, a pipeman is “the firefighter who is on the nozzle attacking the fire.”

The description alongside Leonard’s Eastland photo reads “He received the Lambert Tree Medal for his heroic deeds.” As defined by the Office of the Mayor of Chicago, the Lambert Tree Award is one of the most prestigious honors presented to law enforcement and firefighters in the city, meant to “…recognize the actions and outstanding bravery of select members of the Fire Department and Police Department in the line of duty. The Awards are named after Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison and Judge Lambert Tree.”

Engine Company No. 85. Leonard is standing second from the left.

However, the description of Jun Fujita’s photo is confusing. Its phrasing implies Olson received the award for the 1915 Eastland rescue and recovery. A long, fruitless newspaper search showed that he had not received the award in 1915. Leonard Olson received the Lambert Tree Award 1912 for an act of heroism years earlier.

In September of 1908, a panicked horse and its empty wagon thundered down Lawndale Avenue near No. 85’s firehouse. Pedestrians leapt out of the way as it clomped past and people screamed warnings as the horse headed directly toward a group of children playing near the street’s edge.

From The Inter Ocean. July 28th, 1912

Tragedy seemed inevitable. It was Leonard Olson’s quick bravery that saved the day. With speed and agility you’d think impossible for this heavyset, middle-aged man, Leonard launched himself at the horse’s side, pulling furiously at its reins.

With his body wedged precariously between the horse and wagon, one slip and he would have been chewed up by the wagon wheel. He held on and pulled with his box-making muscles. The horse slowed and finally stopped, only a few steps aways from the frightened children.

That bit of heroism earned Leonard E. Olson his medal in 1912. Which meant that, by the time of the Eastland’s sinking, he was already a hero. It turns out that wasn’t the first runaway horse Leonard had stopped. He had done the same death-defying deed only months before…

Chicago Tribune. July 28th, 1912

After the Eastland, Leonard seems to disappear from Chicago’s printed history. Like any hero, he deserved a rest and he likely received it, watching his massive family grown up in Chicagoland. It’s a reminder that real-life doesn’t follow a narrative structure and sometimes our heroes disappear before giving us a satisfying end. This is very true in Leonard’s case.

He died at the age of 56 in 1925, only a day before his 34th wedding anniversary and almost 10 years after the Eastland Disaster. Although his most famous legacy is the Fujita photograph, his real legacy is obvious in his obituary: “Father of…” He lived and died a well-loved man, the best legacy anyone could ask for.

Chicago Tribune. May 8th, 1925

Leonard was born in the city, lived in the city, and died in the city.  He still rests in Chicago, buried All Saints Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum in Des Plaines. You can give his grave a virtual visit  HERE.

Want to Know More?

Browse the photo collection of Chicago photojournalist Jun Fujita at the Chicago History Museum’s site. Fujita’s extraordinary work captures Chicago’s most formative events in the early 20th century.

Visit the Eastland Historical Society’s website to learn the complete story of the Eastland, the list of victims, and the efforts and events memorializing the tragedy. The site was founded in 1998 by the grandchildren an Eastland survivor.

*Several photos included in this article were found in The Hungry Genealogist’s blog entry “July 24, 1915: the Eastland Disaster.