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Historic lost footage of Chicago Disaster found by chance on Europeana

A phD candidate from the University of Illinois in Chicago has uncovered previously unseen footage of the Eastland Disaster in Chicago on Europeana’s 1914-1918 website. The disaster, which killed 844 people, occurred when the Eastland capsized in the Chicago river in July 1915.


A fragment from the film footage. Source: EYE Film Instituut film still

Jeff Nichols was actually gathering material for his doctoral dissertation on the First World War when he made the historic discovery. While watching Dutch news reels from 1915, he chanced across the coverage of the disaster and realised at once what an exciting find he had made.

“I consider myself a Chicago historian, but I am not an historian of the Eastland Disaster. There are many people who have worked very hard studying the tragedy. But I knew instantly what I had.”

The footage came to Europeana from the EYE Film Institute via the European Film Gateway, which has provided over 600 hours of archive footage to Europeana 1914-18, and shows the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The first clip, which is just under a minute, shows the first responders walking on the ship’s hull, while the second clip shows the ship as it is righted. You can watch the clips on our website here and here.

It is an important discovery for American history, and the story has captured the attention of the world’s media, picked up by news outlets like The Washington Post and the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom. In the video below, Jeff talks to CBS about the “Holy Cow” moment when he discovered the footage on the Europeana 1914-1918 website.

For Jeff, an important part of the story of the discovery is that “it would have been impossible… just a few years ago.” Though historians suspected some surviving footage might exist, knowing where to hunt for it had been a difficult task.

The material Europeana provides access to has helped to enrich his research on the First World War in other ways, too. Jeff also unearthed a number of important handwritten letters that he could never have otherwise found.

“I could not possibly expect to ask multiple European archives to see if they had any letters from Chicago or if they had any letters that mentioned a handful of American journalists. I would never have asked them to send me copies of the letters for free. That is what your website does. As fantastic a tool as Google is for my research, I wouldn’t have been able to find the items there.”

Europeana 1914-1918 allows people to explore untold stories from the First World War, and brings together material from archives and libraries all over the world with the memories and memorabilia of families throughout Europe.

There are plenty of exciting discoveries like Jeff’s to be made on Europeana. Let his story of the Eastland Disaster inspire you as you make your own.

Europeana and European Parliament join forces to mark events that shaped Europe

WW1 and the fall of the Iron Curtain, two events that shaped the Europe we know today will be commemorated at the European Parliament in unique style. A family history roadshow, digitising personal memorabilia of MEPs for these two seminal periods of European history, is taking place in the Parliament.

On 2 and 3 December, Shaping Europe will mark the centenary commemoration of WW1 and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain. Members of the European Parliament and Parliament staff are invited to bring along their personal and family memorabilia to be digitised and to share the stories behind them through Europeana’s two major thematic websites Europeana 1914-1918 and Europeana1989.eu.

Monika Grütters, the German Minister of State for Culture said at the beginning of this year: ‘Europeana is a great bridge builder. In a wonderful way, it is founding connections between cultural institutions across Europe. It is making an important contribution to European cooperation and understanding across borders and tranches of history.'

For the past three years, Europeana 1914-18 and Europeana 1989 have worked with citizens and our cultural institutions across Europe to create online archives that provide a unique perspective on these two seminal events, which can be shared worldwide. The two collection days at the Parliament, add to 150 held across Europe over the last 4 years and directly connect citizens to their cultural heritage.

Jill Cousins, Executive Director of Europeana Foundation said: ‘Europeana 1914-1918 and Europeana 1989 connects our state history with our personal memories. They show the power of a Europe connected through its cultural institutions and our shared heritage’.

MEP and one of the initiators of the European Parliament's resolution on European Conscience and Totalitarianism (2009), Mr. Tunne-Väldo Kelam is one of those who have already shared their story through Europeana 1989 and the 89 voices project. He said, 'One of our main objectives at the European Parliament has been to develop a balanced understanding and approach to European history as a whole. Because we noticed that our colleagues and friends in Western and Southern Europe know very little about what happened in the East. We should establish a political balance to recognise these [totalitarian, Nazi and Communist] crimes and express solidarity with the victims.'

Senior representatives from the EU institutions, Member States and cultural organisations will gather at the commemoration, hosted by five members of the European Parliament and its committee of Culture and Education: Ms. Silvia Costa, Ms Sabine Verheyen, Ms. Petra Kammerevert, Mr Maura Barandarián and Ms. Helga Trϋpel. The event will mark the role of these two formative periods in shaping Europe.

On 3 December evening, a reception will be held to mark the importance of culture to the formation of the European Union and the role of the Member States in Europeana 1914-1918 and Europeana 1989. The reception will be attended by Commissioner Tibor Navracsics, Culture, Education, Youth and Sport and Mr Bodgan Andrzej Zdrojewski, MEP and former minister for Culture, Poland.

To follow developments on social media, please use #ShapingEurope.

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