Jul 14

Filming the Wreck of the SS Eastland: Harry Birch and the Making of a Chicago News Family

Images of the Eastland Disaster from the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland Disaster from the Birch family scrapbook.

One hundred years ago this week, the Western Electric Co. in Chicago hosted its employees on the SS Eastland for a day of relaxation, a day away from work, a day together as a family. Over two thousand employees boarded the Great Lakes passenger ship while it was moored on the Chicago River. It was raining.

Harry Birch, a young cameraman in Chicago, probably began his day as usual. He got up to go into the office.

With its decks filled with passengers, the Eastland pushed off from the dock at the Clark St. Bridge on its way to Michigan City, IN. It listed hard to port, took water, and settled onto the bottom of the river. In a few moments, 844 people were dead. On this 100th anniversary of the disaster, others more knowledgeable about the ship’s sinking can write about the events of that day in general. Here, though, I want to touch on how this event impacted just one family, the Birches of Chicago, and how the Eastland may well be responsible for the professional careers of two of Chicago’s most important news cameramen, Harry Birch and his son Bill.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Harry Birch was a young cameraman on July 24, 1915, having only moved that year from Los Angeles to Chicago. In July he was splitting his time between the Rothacker Film Co. and the Chicago Tribune Animated Newsreel. The films he would make this day for the Tribune would reach across the county, and the globe.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Harry Birch arrived at Clark Bridge dock within minutes of the Eastland’s sinking. Two audio testimonies exist in the Harry and William Birch Collection documenting Birch’s work that morning. The first is a very short audio clip in Harry’s own word’s that begins to describe the event (after a minute of audio the tape is recorded over with music). The second is an audio tape made by Harry’s son, Bill Birch, reviewing the facts of Harry’s testimony after listening to the audio tape made by Harry. Bill summarizes the content of the original tape made by Harry, providing some information about the content. Although Bill is instructing Harry on how to frame a new recording so that it can be used as part of a planned Alex Dreier, ABC News feature story, through his instruction to Harry we learn what Harry did that morning.

According to this combined testimony, Harry was at Erie and Clark Streets when firetrucks roared down Clark St. He grabbed a cab and went with his camera to the dock, arriving just before 8:00 am. He then began filming the rescue effort.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

When I first began talking with Bill Birch in 2005, he asked me if I could help find his father’s film of the Eastland disaster. Although Moving Image Research Collections has over 200 negatives from Harry Birch’s camera in our collection, we did not have his film of the Eastland. A family scrapbook with heart-wrenching images from that day and subsequent days (including frames printed from Harry’s camera) was all that remained. But Harry had passed this story to his son, who carried it with him his entire life—it was certainly the type of news story that drove the young Bill Birch to devote his life to newsreels and television news.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

To the astonishment of many, two fragments of film showing the Eastland on the day of the sinking recently surfaced in European film archives. In the piece found at the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands, the Eastland footage begins 1:10 into the video. This longer (and more graphic) clip, almost definitely sold by Selig-Tribune to British Pathé, provides strong evidence in support of Harry Birch being the cameraman. Many of the still images at MIRC mirror the activities captured in this film. The composition and camera angles are also close matches. In all probability, both these sequences were shot by Harry Birch, as he remains the only individual associated with films made on the day of the disaster.

Images of the aftermath of the disaster, including rows of the deceased.

Images of the aftermath of the disaster, including rows of the deceased. From the Birch family scrapbook.

The sinking of the Eastland was the story that established Harry Birch’s credentials as a newsreel cameraman (he would later work for Gaumont-Mutual News and Fox News). Harry had a life-long career in Chicago area films, helping to found Local 666, making industrial films, and finally working in television. His son Bill Birch grew up wanting to do nothing more than shoot the news. He worked for Fox Movietone News prior to and after WWII. During the war he filmed with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps outfit, he established the NBC Network News division in Chicago in the early 1950s, and stayed active in television news through the 1970s, during which time he expanded his portfolio to include feature films and significant documentaries. His son, Randy Birch, also became a television news cameraman for NBC.

A special note of thanks to Marjorie Fritz-Birch, Bill’s wife and partner of over 30 years, for making possible the Harry and William Birch Collection at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections.

~Written by Dr. Greg Wilsbacher, MIRC Curator.

*Note: This entry has been edited since its original posting to include additional historical and contextual information.

1 comment

1 ping

    • John Rohsenow on July 17, 2015 at 4:54 pm
    • Reply

    My maternal grandmother Selma Gors and her sister Irene were on the Eastland that
    day. They held on to the railing and were not thrown into the water, but she would never go into a boat for the rest of her (long) life. Had she not survived that day, then she would not have married my grandfather Fred Rohsenow, nor would my father Warren
    Rohsenow have been born, and neither……

  1. […] The SS Eastland sunk 100 years ago next week. For an account and lots of photos showing how this event impacted just one family, Harry Birch and his son Bill, two of Chicago’s most important news cameramen, click here. […]

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