On 15 June 1904 the PS General Slocum was taking was taking members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Church to a church picnic. It was supposed to be a wonderful outing for all, and many children were aboard. Fire broke out, most likely in the Lamp Room, and then spread. Due to inadequate safety inspections, failure of Knickerbocker Steamship Company to maintain safety standards, and the ship’s captain, the safety equipment aboard was completely unusable. Ship hoses could not function due to age, most life preservers were so old they fell apart or were weighted inside, and lifeboats were inaccessible. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 passengers perished in the tragedy mostly from drowning. It was the single worst loss of life in New York City history until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Sadly, many who died were children though sometimes parents or members of the extended family also perished. Some victims were never identified because there was no one living to do so. The funeral procession of the dead was witnessed by many, and the small coffins caused many to cry. One notable incident was a man accompanied by his wife carrying a small coffin under his arms. He could not afford a funeral wagon and so was walking to the cemetery. Fortunately, a man delivering flowers offered him a ride.
The subsequent investigation revealed the poor state of safety equipment on General Slocum. The company laid the blame on Captain Van Schaick and the government inspectors for failing in their duties (who were likely bribed). It would lead to reorganization of the government agency responsible and tighter accountability of ship owners to safety regulations. Today that function is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the United States has one the toughest maritime safety regulations in the world.
The Knickerbocker Steamship Company was fined, and Captain Van Schaick would be imprisoned for several years. He was paroled in 1911 and in 1912 President Taft pardoned him. Many believed, although he was captain of General Slocum, the company was ultimately responsible for the tragedy. St. Mark’s Evangelical Church was part of the Little Germany community in New York. The loss brought many together to help the church and its members. However, as people began to move away from the area, the Germans that had made up its base went with it. The church closed and is now a synagogue. A stone memorial to the victims of the General Slocum is at Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan. Today there are those that get together to remember this terrible event in New York City history. Sadly, all the survivors have passed away, the last one in 2004.
The movie Manhattan Melodrama (1934), which stars a young Clark Gable, has as its opening moments the events of the General Slocum which sets in motion the lives of the two characters the movie depicts. Not a bad movie for its time and worth looking at if you have the opportunity.
A memorial plaque placed near the former church of St. Mark’s on the centennial of disaster states:
This is the site of the former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1857–1940) a mostly German immigrant parish. On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the church chartered the excursion steamer, GENERAL SLOCUM, to take the members on the 17th annual Sunday school picnic. The steamer sailed up the East River, with some 1400 passengers aboard, when it entered the infamous Hell Gate passage, caught fire and was beached and sank on North Brother Island. It is estimated 1200 people lost their lives, mostly woman and children, dying within yards of the Bronx shore.
The GENERAL SLOCUM had been certified by the U.S. Steam boat Inspection Service to safely carry 2500 passengers five weeks before the disaster. An investigation after the fire and sinking found the lifeboats were wired and glued with paint to the deck, life jackets fell apart with age, fire hoses burst under water pressure, and the crew never had a fire drill. Until the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Slocum disaster had been the largest fire fatality in New York City’s history.
Dedicated Sunday, June 13, 2004, by the Steam Centennial Committee.
The Maritime Industry Museum
SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY