Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Sinking of the General Slocum June 15, 1904

On June 15, 1904, a steamship leaves the dock in the neighborhood that was known as Little Germany up the East River for the serene waters of Long Island Sound. Aboard the ship that was named after a Civil War were over 1,000 people who were looking forward to a Sunday school picnic along the shores of Long Island. As little as an hour later, the ship would be ablaze with a panicking public aboard a ship whose safety precautions all failed. This tragedy which happened 106 years ago was the biggest tragedy in the history of New York City until the events of September 11, 2001 and is largely forgotten. Here is my attempt to shine a little bit of light on an event that should never be forgotten.

In 1904, the neighborhood of Little Germany was made up from 14th Street to the North, Houston Street to the South, 2nd Avenue to the West and the East River to the East which currently make up the neighborhoods of the East Village, Alphabet City and the Lower East Side. The center to the neighborhood was the St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th Street, which was led by Reverend George Haas. It was his congregation that made up the majority of the victims of the General Slocum.

Named after Civil War hero General Henry Warner Slocum (September 24, 1827 – April 14, 1894), the General Slocum was a 264-foot long wooden steamship paddleboat with three large open decks that was piloted by Captain William Van Schaick. The boat was slowly filled with many parishioners of the St. Marks Church as well as Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants that lived and worked within the neighborhood of Little Germany. At 9:40 am, the ship pushed off into the busy and crowded East River from the 3rd Street pier as bands played German music on the docks. Little more that twenty minutes later, a fire that was generated deep within the bowels of the ship and was starting to consume the ship leaving its passengers in a frightened panic.

The ship continued on course up the East River passing the treacherous segment known as the Hell Gate (Author's Note: As a someone who was born and raised in Astoria, the stories of the Hell Gate are well known. A child in my Junior High School drowned in those waters and I saw how the water churned in many different directions while hanging out at the Strip that ran along side Astoria Park). While the boat burned and sailed on, the passengers tried to release the lifeboats that were on the top deck. To their chagrin, the lifeboats had been affixed to the decks and the passengers in vain tried to dislodge them. Many other passengers tried to save themselves with the safety vests that similar to the lifeboats were not in working order. Many of the vests simply ripped apart. Those that were preserved complete the cork that made the up the buoyancy for the vests had decomposed into powder, which led to those passengers, who wore them in the water to sink instantly. The water hoses that were crucial to the fighting of the fire were faulty, full of holes and burst when the water passed through them. The ship had been inspected and passed only five weeks before the tragedy.

Instead of trying to dock along the Astoria coastline, the captain decided to head to North Brother Island off the coast of the Bronx. To make matters worse, as the ship was navigating past the Hell Gate, the top deck collapsed from the effects of the support beams being burned away and from the ship hitting rocks underneath the water. The bone jarring collision sent many passengers flying off the portside into the churning waters of Hell Gate to a swift death. Women and the children were burdened by heavy and restricting clothing, which only helped to cause then to drown even faster.

On North Brother Island was a hospital that was being utilized for those patients that were being quarantined because of contagious illnesses (one of the hospital’s most famous patients was "Typhoid" Mary Mallon). As the General Slocum was approaching the island, the hospital’s Doctors, Nurses, Administrators and even patients ran out to help. As the living were taken from the water and the ship, the ship continued to drift in the water and finally landed more than a mile away on the beach at Hunt's Point.

In total, over 1,000 people, mainly women and children perished. An inquest would later find all the employees innocent of all charges except for the Captain who was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Sing Sing (Van Schaick served three and a half years and was pardoned by President William Howard Taft). The families received a $500 dollar insurance payment for each family member lost in the tragedy. The neighborhood of Little Germany was decimated and faded away.

Though the neighborhood has changed, two markers remain to remind those of the former Little Germany. The former St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church is still standing on 6th Street but it is now known as The Sixth Street Community Synagogue having been taken over by a number of Jewish parishioners in November 1940. The second marker is located within Tompkins Square Park. As per the New York City Parks Department Website:

The Slocum Memorial Fountain by sculptor Bruno Louis Zimm was donated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and installed in Tompkins Square Park, a central feature of the neighborhood. The nine-foot upright stele is made of pink Tennessee marble with a low relief of two children looking seaward as well as a lionhead spout.

Ironically, the Titanic disaster occurred 8 years later becoming part of American history and spawning tales of heroism and legendary accomplishments while the General Slocum is seen as being no more than a historical footnote. Regardless of how it is seen by many, it is an event that should never been forgotten. Ever.


For Further Reading:
- O'Donnell, Edward T. O’Donnell Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, 2004.
- Click Here for the text of the New York Times June 16, 1904 about the General Slocum Tragedy
- Click Here for the text of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle June 15, 1904 about the General Slocum Tragedy
- Click Here for the webpage
- Click Here for an amazing website created by Jim Kalafus, a great-grandson of one of the victims of the General Slocum Tragedy
- Click Here for a Blog Page about North Brother Island with recent pictures of the buildings still standing on the island
- Click Here for the NYC Parks Department website listing for the Slocum Memorial Fountain
- Click Here for the NYC Parks Department website as it refers to Astoria Park and the General Slocum Disaster
- Click Here for the NYC Parks Deparment website for North and South Brother Islands

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