Tag Archives: General Slocum

In Memoriam, PS General Slocum

General Slocum, date and author unknown. Image:Public Domain (National Archives)
General Slocum, date and author unknown.
Image:Public Domain (National Archives)

Today marks the anniversary of the tragic sinking of PS General Slocum on the East River in New York City. She 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.

General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City Image:Public Domain (Wikipedia)
General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City
Image:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

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 Indistry Museum
SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY


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Remembering The Victims of PS General Slocum

PS General Slocum
Illustration by Samuel Ward Stanton of the excursion steamboat General Slocum (Wikipedia)

Though not well known, 109 years ago today the PS General Slocum caught fire and sank in the New York East River. At the time she on a chartered run carrying members of St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church to a church picnic. The Slocum had over 1,400 passengers, many of them women and children.

It is believed the fire started in the Lamp Room, possibly by a discarded cigarette. Fueled by oily straw, rags, and lamp oil, the fire began to spread. By 10:00 a.m. the fire was noticed and Captain Van Schaick was notified of it. Rather then running the ship aground or stop at a landing, he continued on course. This likely fanned the flames and with flammable paint spread the fire out of control.

Worse though was that the safety equipment–fire hoses and life jackets– and been left to rot. The fire hoses came apart, the life jackets were in poor condition and some filled with weights, and the lifeboats were tied up making them inaccessible. Also the crew had never had a fire drill so they did not know what to do. People had to jump into the water. Most could not swim and were weighed down by woolen clothing. Worse the life preservers helped children sink rather than float (some of them simply came apart when touched). By the time the General Slocum sank in shallow water at North Brother Island, an estimated 1,021 had burned to death or drowned. Only 321 survived and five crew members died. Captain Van Schaick survived. There were many stories of heroism both on ship and from people ashore trying to help people by forming human chains to pull them out of the water.

Eight were indicted by a Federal grand jury but only Captain Van Schaick was convicted and served time for criminal negligence (though pardoned by President Taft in 1912). Despite evidence of fraudulent inspection records, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid a small fine. The incident led to state and federal regulations improving emergency equipment aboard ships.

General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City
General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City

There are two memorials to the victims of the General Slocum. One is at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Queens, New York where many of the unidentified victims are buried. It is also where the annual memorial service is held. The other is a memorial marble fountain erected in 1906 at Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan.

 

Sources:
1. General Slocum Victims Remembered 109 Years(14 June 2013, New York Daily News)

2. PS General Slocum (Wikipedia)

3. The General Slocum : The horror of fire at sea (Jim Kalafus, Encylopedia Titanica)