Tompkins Square Park

Slocum Memorial Fountain

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Dedicated in 1906, this fountain serves as a reminder of those who died aboard the excursion steamer General Slocum on June 15, 1904. 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 incident claimed an irreplaceable part of the Lower East Side community once known as Little Germany and remains the worst inland-waters, peacetime tragedy in the nation’s history.

The Slocum was a triple-decker wooden ship built in 1891, named after General Henry Warner Slocum (1827-1894) who commanded the extreme right line of the Union Army at Gettysburg and represented the City of Brooklyn in Congress for three terms. It was one of nearly a dozen excursion steamers that traveled around New York waterways, enabling working class people to escape the city even if just for a few hours. On its final voyage, the Slocum was to vary its normal two trips to the Rockaways in order to bring a large party to Locust Grove on Long Island.

The approximately 1,300 passengers and 35 member crew included the congregation of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, located on 6th Street near 2nd Avenue, who were en route to their seventeenth annual picnic. As it was a weekday, the majority of the German immigrants and people of German descent who comprised the group were women and children. This was also true for the other passengers who hailed from all over the New York area.

Twenty minutes after the ship departed the Third Street pier on the East River, it entered the ever treacherous junction of the East River, New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. There it was overtaken not by the current but by flames and Captain William Van Schaik docked, shortly after 10AM, at North Brother Island, near Riker’s Island. 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. The disaster was the fatal end of a ship with a history of accidents and was attributed to inadequate safety precautions and the negligence of the Captain.

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. Zimm, who was a member of the Woodstock Artists Colony, also designed a similar fountain, the Women’s Health Protective Monument, located at 116th Street and Riverside Drive, and the frieze on the pediment of the Fine Arts building in San Francisco.

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