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Volume XIX, Number 4130
Tuesday, Jun 15, 2004

REMEMBERING THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GENERAL SLOCUM DISASTER

Slocum Disaster, Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan
Slocum Disaster, Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan
New York City Parks Photo Archive

On the morning of June 15, 1904, the steamboat General Slocum caught fire in the East River with approximately 1,300 people on board, including many children. In the course of 20 minutes, an estimated 1,021 people died. Prior to September 11, 2001, the burning of the General Slocum had the highest death toll of any disaster in New York City history.

The triple-decker wooden side paddler was built in 1891 and named after Henry Warner Slocum (1827-1894), a Union Army general who later represented the City of Brooklyn in Congress. Saint Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and which served primarily German immigrants, chartered the Slocum for their 17th annual excursion to the Locust Grove Picnic Ground on Eatons Neck, Long Island.

Wearing their "Sunday best", the passengers boarded the General Slocum at its Third Street dock, and at about 9:40 a.m. the ship headed up the East River. As the band played, people danced on the deck and passersby waved from the shore. But by the time the ship reached Astoria, onlookers were gesturing frantically as smoke billowed from the portholes. Initially, the passengers assumed the burning smell came from the kitchen, and although a few crewmembers were aware of the fire, they did not alert the captain. With the exception of the captain and the chief engineer, the 35-person crew lacked experience and had never conducted a fire drill.

Although the crew did not sound an alarm, many passengers jumped from the boat while it passed through Hell Gate, taking their chances in New York’s most turbulent channel. Those who jumped quickly felt their odds for survival drop as the lifejackets they put on pulled them underwater. The jackets’ cork, the material then used for buoyancy, had turned to dust over time. Rather than float, the jackets absorbed water. Eventually hundreds of bodies washed up on Astoria’s shoreline.

As the General Slocum passed Randall’s Island, the smoke below deck gave way to massive flames. Only then did the captain receive word of the blaze. He had no choice but to beach the General Slocum on North Brother Island. As the ship raced to shallow water, the crew tried to fight the blaze, but the fire hoses burst under the pressure. Just as New Yorkers have come to help each other in the face of recent tragedy, so too did the seafaring New Yorkers of 100 years past. A dozen tugs, two fireboats, a police boat, ferries, and more than a hundred other vessels joined in the rescue effort. Some of the rescue ships themselves caught fire while trying to get people off the General Slocum. In 15 minutes, the Slocum had burned to the waterline.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Commission of Investigation, which determined that a number of causal factors led to the General Slocum incident. They noted specific organizational and leadership failings within the Steamboat Inspection Service, the United States agency charged with the prevention of such tragedies. The Service had checked the General Slocum five weeks before the disaster. The inspectors certified the 13-year-old lifebelts as "up-to-date and of good quality". They did not examine the fire pump and hoses, nor did they realize that all six lifeboats were stuck to the ship by a thick coat of paint. Adding to the severity of these blatant safety violations was the realization that the Slocum had suffered several other accidents in recent years.

Of the more than 1,000 people who died, many were buried in the Lutheran cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, where a monument was erected in 1905 to honor the unidentified dead. In 1906, the City dedicated a fountain in Tompkins Square Park in remembrance of those who died in the General Slocum disaster. The Slocum Memorial Fountain, by sculptor Bruno Louis Zimm, was donated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and remains a central feature of the neighborhood. The nine-foot upright stele is made of pink Tennessee marble with a lionhead spout and a low relief of two children looking seaward.

Every year a ceremony is held at the fountain to honor the victims. Although New York has changed immensely over the past century, ferries and ships still play an important role in daily life. Since 1946, the U.S. Coast Guard has been responsible for maritime safety, employing nearly 500 uniformed and civilian personnel in inspection duties and more than 100 as accident investigators. In addition to the annual Slocum event, which took place this Sunday at Tompkins Square Park, the Greater Astoria Historical Society will be holding an event this year in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard at Astoria Park. Located on the banks of Hell Gate, Astoria Park overlooks the waters where the tragic events of the General Slocum disaster unfolded exactly 100 years ago today.

Written by John Mattera

QUOTATION FOR THE DAY

"There are no persons capable of stooping so low as those who desire to rise in the world."

Marguerite Guardiner

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