On the Eastland


Continued from Plain brown wrapper

My Aunt Pearl’s 39-page genealogy overflowed with stories of members of my maternal grandmother’s family–most of whom I’d never heard of. The first reading was akin to being repeatedly tasered and I remember pacing, reading, and saying aloud, “I never knew this….how could I not know….I never heard of him or her.”

When my mom’s Mother, Annie Pfeiffer, died of a heart attack when my Mom was 3, all of Annie’s stories were lost for many decades. Most of Annie’s family was in Chicago while my Mom, her Dad (Fred Ott), and his brother and family were in Johnstown, PA. During the 1930s, traveling between the two cities took a lot more time, effort and money.  Mom grew up having a vague connection to her half-siblings, aunts and uncles in Chicago, but there was little contact.  Mom once said in regards to her mother’s loss, “You can’t miss what you never had.” Maybe she meant it. Since she had little contact with her Chicago family, she had few stories to share. While I was intrigued with this place called Chicago, I’d never seen in and most of my knowledge came from old gangster movies. My Mom’s half-sister, Pearl Cerny, visited us once when I was about 5 or so, but there was no contact after that. My parents also didn’t travel–other than going back and forth to Johnstown, so my world-view was limited.

Yet, I do remember my Mom telling a story about her mother’s younger sister dying in a  “ferry boat accident in Chicago.” That was all she knew about it. I didn’t think to pursue the story further since, at best, my Chicago family seemed mythical at best. Other than faded photos of my grandmother and that one visit from Pearl, that was the extent of my contact with Chicago.   There was nothing there to hold onto, nothing to pursue and so I relegated that part of the family to the back shelf.

The Eastland

While rifling through Aunt Pearl’s tome, I kept returning to a story. “Martha E. Pfeiffer, 1895-1915. Was barely 20 years old and died when the Eastland ship capsized in the Chicago River. The Eastland was chartered for the Western Electric Annual Picnic. Over 844 people died.” Martha was my great-aunt and my grandmother’s youngest sister.

The Eastland Disaster of 1915. Ever hear of it?  I sure hadn’t until reading my Aunt’s genealogy. Twenty years ago, it was a footnote in most books, but as the internet grew, so did publicity around the Eastland.  I wrote an article, “On the Eastland”  (on-the-eastland-october-1998-bugle) for the Park Bugle, Saint Paul, MN that details the initial discovery. Then, there’s the to-be-published book I wrote that borders fiction/creative non-fiction. This book talks about how this single discovery led me on a race into the past to try to connect with my great-aunt who died decades before my birth, but whose path I seemed to be following throughout my life. Now, I also now know more about ship construction than I would otherwise.

The other part of this discovery was trying to find relatives who might have known my great-aunt.  In 1998, I realized I was cutting it close, since most who would have remembered Martha would have probably died.

The journey would take me to Chicago, many times, but not before taking me to a detour to a place that was about a 1.5 hour-car ride from my home in Saint Paul.

Just across the border

Aunt Pearl’s genealogy arrived on the heels of my Dad’s death. Perfect timing during a not-so-perfect time. I was reeling after his death and was possessed with the idea that I needed to return “home.” I didn’t literally want to move from my beloved Twin Cities, but with this major discovery about my Mom’s family I wondered what else had I overlooked about my own past and ancestry. And my grandmother, Annie Pfeiffer, was no longer a forgotten fragment of the family history but was now taking center stage along with her enormous family.

Pearl’s genealogy and the story of Martha’s death on The Eastland placed me on the outskirts of a familial labyrinth. Fortunately, Pearl’s genealogy provided major clues to begin navigating.

My maternal grandmother’s family came to Chicago from Johnstown, PA where they (“they” = my great-grandparents and their 8 children) immigrated (from Poznan, Poland) in the late 1800s/early 1900s. My great-grandparents were Carl Herman Pfeiffer and Bertha Strascynska/Straschinske Pfeiffer.

Pearl’s genealogy also listed Bertha Straschinske’s brothers, sisters, and mother — all of whom immigrated to Western Wisconsin, mainly in Fall Creek, Augusta and Osseo.  This was the second major shock courtesy of Pearl’s Genealogy.

Backstory: I moved to the Twin Cities in the early 1980s, to attend grad school and, more importantly, to live in a place where I  had no family members and no connections. Hell-bent on being original, I wanted to experiment with different things (writing, acting, activism) without being concerned about embarrassing my family.

When I first saw the Western Wisconsin and the Twin Cities (they’re very close and share a border), I asked my traveling companion to stop the car. As I stood in a parking lot near the 3M headquarters in Saint Paul, I told my friend, “This is it. This is where I belong and it’s home.” She said, “You haven’t even seen the place yet.”

“I don’t need to see it. I already know this place.”

And as new and different as the area was (I eventually settled in Saint Paul) it always had a tinge of the familiar.

Fall Creek, Wisconsin

Staring at the names in Pearl’s genealogy, I realized that when I moved to Saint Paul, all I had done was parked myself near the Mothership and I wasn’t nearly as original as I thought. That called my world viewpoint into question: how much was serendipity actively guiding me? I thought of flukes as just that. Once in a while things that happen to a person that punctuate an otherwise self-directed existence.

I saw that my great-great grandmother was buried in Fall Creek, WI, just 60 miles from Saint Paul. Further, I saw that I had many gr-great aunts and uncles who also lived and died in this area.

Maria Schedler Straschinske was already widowed when she immigrated to the United States. I’m unsure what led her, along with her children and their spouses to Western Wisconsin, but I knew I wouldn’t have to drive too far to see this place. Also, there had to be clues – living oneswho could help.

Fall Creek, WI had about 1,000 people, so I figured that it wouldn’t be hard to find cemeteries. I thought I’d find them easily…