Lydia and Clara Rohn

Clara Anna Maria Rohn
Western Electric employee
2 April 1897 – 24 July 1915

Lydia Anna Ida Rohn
worked at a tailor shop
24 December 1898 – 24 July 1915

The Eastland, one of five chartered excursion boats meant to ferry employees, their families and friends from Chicago over to the Michigan City shore for the annual Western Electric Company picnic, keeled over into the Chicago River while still at dock, trapping hundreds inside its hull and leading to the deaths of 844 of the 2,500 passengers aboard at the time of the incident which became known as The Eastland Disaster.

Clara and Lydia Rohn were the two oldest children (of ten with two not surviving infancy) of Henry and Louise Rohn. Their parents were both the Illinois-born children of German immigrants. Much of their history is lost in the 20-year census gap between 1880 and 1900, but the couple married in 1896 when Henry was 30 and Louisa was 20. Clara was born just over nine months later, a honeymoon baby.

The 1900 census for the little family is confusing (and when is it not? Census takers were TERRIBLE at their jobs!) Louisa’s family the Rosenows and Henry, Louisa, and the two girls appear to all have been living in the same house — either a duplex or a two flat — but for some reason Louisa is listed with her parents and someone named Lena is listed as Henry’s wife. I suspect Lena may have been a sister or sister-in-law, perhaps she was babysitting or wires just got crossed. I suspect no hanky-panky, just sloppy transcription. The house was owned by the Rosenows and Henry rented the part he, Louisa and the girls lived in from them.

By the 1910 census, the family — now with four more children — had moved to their own (mortgaged) home on South Tripp Avenue (and the home appears to still be there) in the Little Village neighborhood. Henry was working as a machinist, a step up from “machine hand” in 1900, and the four oldest children were all attending school.

By 1915, both girls were working and were the “main support of their family” according to their obituary in the Chicago Tribune. At the time of her death, Clara had been working at Western Electric for three years, so she would have been fifteen or sixteen when she started there. Lydia was working at a tailor shop. The most likely scenario was that these two oldest and likely closest sisters were planning to enjoy a day of fun to themselves with no work, family, or annoying little siblings to interfere. I can imagine their excitement and anticipation for this day out, and the utter tragedy of their deaths (of all the Eastland deaths) is shattering.

Being a machinist was a pretty good job at that time, so it seems likely Henry may have had some personal issue, injury or illness that made him unable to work or limited how much he could or chose to do. It may also, too, have been a dramatic flourish as their obituary is one of dozens that ran in a special section of the Tribune paper on 31 July 1915.

Both the girls’ probate petitions were filed by Louise, and while it’s unclear what their estates were ultimately valued at, many of the Eastland victims had “estate not exceeding $10K” entered into the record and a James F. Bishop acting as administrator. (He may have been a representative of Western Electric or the insurance company or was acting in some other official capacity to oversee settling the estates of the victims.)

It’s likely from information I found about other victims that the family received at least $20K in share of the settlement and possibly more due to both girls perishing. However, in 1920, the family (still numbering six as the youngest son and daughter were born in 1911 and 1912 respectively) was still living on S. Tripp and the house was still mortgaged. Henry’s occupation is listed as just “laborer” though he was still at a machine shop. Whether this was some demotion, another transcription error, or just a more honest label for the work he was doing is unclear.

The oldest son Edward and now oldest daughter Elsie had both gone to work at Western Electric and were likely the main supports of their family if father Henry’s earnings were no longer sufficient. Second oldest son George worked as an errand boy but based on information from the 1940 census, it appears this was part-time and he was still attending school along with the three youngest.

Elsie married in 1925 but in 1926, she died. Especially considering the timing of it after her marriage, the odds that her death was childbirth-related are good, but we have no cause given.

With the surviving family, something unclear happened that seems to have caused some kind of break-up — possibly trauma from all the losses, possibly marriage tensions, and possibly the Great Depression, but whatever the case, in 1930 Henry is gone (though not dead).

Louise still listed herself as married, but George is the head of the household, and he, mother Louise, and all the suriviving children except Edward are living together at a new address, apparently in one unit of a three-flat on Springfield (building still there). All four of them, ranging from 18 to 25 years old, are working and one supposes supporting their mother. Henry is nowhere to be found on a separate census and at this point I also lost track of Edward.

In 1934, Louise passed away, and as I am not doing their family’s entire genealogy, I’ll only mention a few things about the children beyond this. By 1940, Mabel had married and her brother George was living with her and her husband. In spite of being the head of the household ten years before, George seems to have hit a rough patch and listed himself as a mostly unemployed truck driver. Mabel and her husband had no children yet and Mabel was still working at the phone company. Both she and George, however, are listed as having completed high school which was surely not the case for their older siblings.

Mildred also married but I cannot find a death record or any information for her past 1930. Wilbert lived a long life, passing away in 2002 at the age of 91 in Arizona. His obituary paints a picture of a truly lovely, kind man who had a good life. He outlived all of his siblings.

Father Henry turns back up in the 1940 census, living as a lodger in Cicero and doing “general work” which apparently kept him fully employed. It seems he might have been estranged from his children, especially considering the glimpses we get of the children relying on each other even in 1940 when they’re grown, But when Henry died a few years later in 1946, he was buried beside Louise. She and and the surviving children are mentioned fondly but in a vague way that tells us nothing about the state of his relationship with them. A poignant phrase in his obituary, “formerly of 2731 South Tripp Avenue” makes me wonder what happened to take the family away from that home so many of them including Lydia and Clara worked so hard for.

Most of the Rohns I can track down are buried in Concordia (Wilbert was cremated), though only Clara and Lydia are buried together in Section 9.

RIP Rohn family

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