Walter W. Wichtendahl

1 November 1890 – 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.

Walter’s is a bio I went into thinking I’d find more than the usual bits of information for, but alas, I found less than usual! He isn’t listed in the 31 July 1915 special Chicago Tribune edition which is filled with brief obituaries for the hundreds of the Eastland victims nor was I able to turn up a separate news item about him. It’s possible his body was not identified until after that issue ran, but it’s sad no separate obituary was published.

Walter was born in Maywood, Illinois, also his mother’s hometown. He was the youngest of three children, each born a few years apart. His only sister was born and died in the 1880s, and he and his older brother William were ten years apart. His father was ten years his mother’s senior and had immigrated from Germany as a young man after his own parents passed away. Walter’s father worked for the railroad for many years, long enough to have retired with a pension before 1910.

Walter had married only a year and a month before his death to a young woman named Leona who was born and raised in Michigan and whose people were still there. What’s interesting is that the couple got married in Montana, a state to which I otherwise can tie neither of them. They do not appear to have lived or worked there, they did not stay there after their marriage, and it doesn’t seem as if they had relatives there. Not only were these two randomly in Montana, but they were in a very remote corner of Montana in a tiny town called Libby. On his death record, Walter’s occupation is listed as “special police” which is fairly vague with no context of “for whom.” Chicago had some special police categories, but my guess is that he worked for the railroad because this explains how both he and Leona may have met and then married so far from either of their homes. One wonders if they met on that train trip, fell in love, and eloped in Libby opportunistically. I like to think so. In any case, they were back in Chicago in 1915, and from Walter’s death record appear to have been living with his parents.

It’s unclear how Walter ended up on the Eastland since the records don’t list him as a Western Electric employee. Presumably he went with friends or at their invitation or he may have had some relationship to the company via whatever his Special Police position was that garnered him an entrée. Whether Leona accompanied him the day of the disaster is also unclear, though if she did, she survived, becoming a widow at only 25 years old. Leona stayed in Chicago, remarrying at some point before 1920 and living out her life hear. A side note on Leona is that either she and Walter married in spite of their differing religions (another reason for a train-based elopement), or she converted to Catholicism at some point after Walter’s death. Either way, she and her second husband are buried in a Catholic cemetery and her obituary specified her funeral included a high mass.

Walter’s father Christoph died in 1919 and was buried with his children. Walter’s mother Carolina lived for many more years in the family home which her husband (or perhaps he and any settlement received from the disaster) seems to have left her in good position to afford and maintain. In 1920, recently widowed, she was living alone; in 1930, her also-widowed sister had come to live with her. In 1940 at the great age of 83, she had moved in with her surviving son and his family in Leyden which, while not terribly far from Maywood, must have felt like a world away for a woman who’d lived her entire life in that village. Carolina passed away just two days shy of her 92nd birthday and was buried with her husband and children at Concordia.

RIP Wichtendahls

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