It was July 25, 1915 and the Western Electric Company was to have its annual picnic. The plant, located in Cicero, Illinois, was the manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone Co. It employed thousands of people most of whom were Czech and Polish immigrants.
The street cars were crowded with families and young people headed to the Chicago river. They carried picnic baskets and were dressed in their best. Awaiting the 7,000 people were five ships, including the S.S. Eastland. It was going to be a perfect day for a cruise on Lake Michigan and a picnic at Michigan City, Indiana.
The Eastland was tied up along the river between LaSalle and Clark streets. (This is across the street from the offices of Bill Campbell where our Board of Governors often meets.) It was to take on board 2,500 people but before everyone had boarded, the Eastland began to list. It finally capsized throwing many into the river and trapping hundreds below as a light rain began to fall.
More than 800 people died on that fateful morning. Most of the dead were taken to the Second Armory where Scots had often celebrated. (After the dedication of the Robert Burns statue in Garfield Park in 1906, a party was held at the Second Armory. Hundreds of Scots attended and danced until the break of day.) I am told that seven Scots died on the Eastland but I don’t presently have their names.
The armory building would later become part of Harpo Studios owned by Oprah Winfrey. Many now believe the studio is haunted. Staff “has reported hearing whispering voices, the laughter of children, sobbing sounds, old-time music, the clinking of glasses and the marching of many feet.” One apparition has been called the “Gray Lady.”
Across the Chicago River from the Eastland stood the Reid Murdoch building and it becomes the focus for this blog. It was built in 1913 as a food processing plant and very much according to the Burnham vision for Chicago river usage. In the center of the 400,000 square foot building is a three-story clock tower which faces the river. When the Eastland disaster occurred, the basement and first floor of the Reid-Murdoch building was used as a temporary hospital and morgue. The building is now the headquarters of Encyclopedia Britannica and was once used by the City as its traffic courts. Here is a look at the lives of these two men: Reid and Murdoch.
Simon Somerville Reid was born in Duffus, Scotland, in 1829 and came to America when he was 14 years old. Apparently his first stop was in Buffalo, New York. Later in the company of his new wife and Thomas Murdoch, he moved to Dubuque, Iowa. Here they sold provisions to wagon trains headed west. With the advent of trains and the decline of the wagon trains, they moved to Chicago and engaged in the food processing business. The company had several locations in Chicago.
Mr. Reid was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, IL. “He was a quiet, unostentatious businessman with a kindly heart and genial disposition, which won for him the respect of all with whom he came in contact.” Mr. Reid died February 13, 1892. He left a wife, three daughters and a son. They donated Reid Hall to Lake Forest College in 1892 and lived at the southwest corner of College and Sheridan Roads.
Thomas Murdoch was born in Forres, Scotland, in 1828 and came to America in 1851. (It is possible he knew Simon Reid in Scotland. David Forlow, who has done considerable research on both men tells me their home towns were less than 15 miles apart.) Mr. Murdoch first settled in Canada but moved in 1853 to Buffalo, New York. The next year, he moved to Dubuque, Iowa, with Simon Reid where they started a wholesale grocery business. By 1864, Murdoch is in Chicago and one of the founders of Reid, Murdoch and Fisher. By 1865, the business was known as Reid-Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch never married and lived mostly in hotels on the south side, especially the Lexington. He died at the Metropole hotel. (There is information that he owned a house in Lake Forest but I don’t have an address.) Mr. Murdoch was a founding member of the Art Institute and The Chicago Home For The Friendless.
I have yet to find an indication that either man was a member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society, but there is evidence that Mr. Murdock was a supporter. He included the Society in his will but the major portion of his four million dollar estate went to family and the old Presbyterian hospital. He built a mansion at 2130 Prairie Avenue in Chicago and was a member of the Second Presbyterian church. (That mansion and many others, were demolished and the land used as parking lots for the 1933 World’s Fair. Sad!) Not sure why he built a house if he lived mostly in hotels. But, in 1914, his niece, Mrs. Julius B. Cone, lived in the house which had been designed by Henry Ives Cobb. (He also designed the mansion of Dr. John McGill at 4938 S. Drexel Blvd.) Mr. Murdoch died on December 25, 1909 and is buried in the Lake Forest Cemetery very close to his life-long friend Simon Reid.
In 1945, the Reid Murdoch & Co. was acquired by Consolidated Grocers Corporation for seven million dollars and the Reid Murdoch Division was changed to the Monarch Finer Foods.
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
On Saturday, July 21, 2012, the Eastland Disaster Historical Society will have a public wreath-laying at noon on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle. More details are on their website.