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The Burning of the General Slocum Steamship

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Its owners called the SS General Slocum the “largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York.” In 1904, it became the scene of the largest loss of life in a single incident in New York City until the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The General Slocum making ready for an excursion.

The General Slocum making ready for an excursion.

The Pleasure Steamer

The General Slocum was a side paddle-wheel steamship that operated as a pleasure excursion vessel in the New York area.

She had been launched in 1891 and could accommodate 2,500 passengers on her three decks. Power was provided by a single-cylinder steam engine that made it possible for her to travel at a respectable to speed of 16 knots (30 km/h).

A crew of 22 was needed to operate her.

An Unlucky Vessel

The General Slocum was a ship that ran into more than her fair share of misfortune. Within months of her launching she ran aground near Rockaway.

The year 1894 was particularly eventful. In July, she slammed into a sandbar. A month later, she ran aground near Coney Island. Then, in September, the General Slocum’s steering was damaged when the vessel collided with a tug in the East River.

There was another crash near Battery Park in 1898, and then came a drunken riot aboard the ship in August 1901. A group of anarchists from New Jersey had hired the General Slocum for an excursion. They became intoxicated and tried to take over the ship. The crew fought back and the captain docked at a police pier, where the revellers were put ashore and into custody.

Another grounding happened in 1902, but nothing came close to the disaster of June 15, 1904.

General Slocum Fire

The morning of June 15, 1904 dawned bright and sunny; it was a perfect day for an outing on the river.

By 9 a.m. a group from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church were boarding the General Slocum. It was mostly women and children from Kleindeutschland—Little Germany, in the Lower East Side. They were about to celebrate their annual outing.

There were picnic baskets, flags waving, and an Oompah German band. There were about 1,350 people aboard as the ship chugged off along the East River, heading for a picnic ground on Long Island’s North Shore.

Not long after sailing a fire broke out in the forward lamp room; speculation is that a carelessly discarded cigarette or match was to blame. The crew made an attempt to extinguish the blaze but the decayed fire hoses burst under the water pressure. Only a month earlier a fire inspector had examined the General Slocum and declared the system to be in “fine working order.”

A sketch of the burning vessel.

A sketch of the burning vessel.

Notified of the conflagration, Captain William Van Schaick steered his vessel toward North Brother Island about a mile away. His plan was to beach the ship on the island sideways, giving people a chance to jump off.

But, the fire rapidly engulfed the mostly wooden superstructure and people started jumping overboard to escape the flames. The crew handed out life preservers, but they had been left unused for many years, had rotted, and were useless. Likewise, the lifeboats whose launch mechanisms had been painted over and locked.

A reporter from The Chicago Tribune witnessed the disaster and wrote that he saw “a great vessel all in flames, sweeping forward in the sunlight, within sight of the crowded city, while her helpless, screaming hundreds were roasted alive or swallowed up in the waves . . .”

Eventually, the General Slocum came to rest on North Brother Island as a smoking hulk, but it was too late for most of the people aboard.

Little Heroism

A total of 1,021 people perished. Many died in the swirling water of the East River because they were unable to swim or because they were dragged down by the heavy clothing that was the customary attire of the time.

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Some were trampled to death by the panicked crowd who tried to escape the fire in the forward part of the ship by rushing to the stern. There was little evidence of heroism.

One story tells of a large sailboat flying the flag of the New York Yacht Club approaching and standing off from the flaming wreck. A witness told of the captain training his binoculars on the scene and “seeing women and children jump overboard in swarms and making no effort to go to their assistance . . . he did not even lower a boat.”

For many days following the calamity, bodies washed up on North Brother Island and other areas along the East River.

Firefighters work to douse the last of the fire on the smoldering wreck.

Firefighters work to douse the last of the fire on the smoldering wreck.

Aftermath of the General Slocum Tragedy

Captain William Shaick, and the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company that employed him came in for immense public anger.

As noted by Ted Houghtaling of the New York Historical Society “For months, the newspapers published more lurid and shocking tales about the company’s negligence and their long history of graft and bribery, which only fed into the public outcry.”

Among the examples of malfeasance it was discovered that bits of iron had been placed in the cork life preservers to bring them up to the mandated weight of six pounds.

A federal commission of inquiry was struck, but the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company escaped censure, although it went out of business. Captain William Shaick was made the fall guy and drew a 10-year sentence in Sing Sing. He was released after four years and later was pardoned by President William Taft.

The inquiry also led to improvements in steamship safety.

A victim is carried away.

A victim is carried away.

Bonus Factoids

  • A survivor of the General Slocum disaster was 11-year-old Willie Keppler who swam to safety. He had boarded the excursion without his parent’s permission and feared going home because he thought he would suffer some terrible punishment. Then, he saw his name in a list of the dead and rushed home to put his parent’s minds at rest. A newspaper quoted the lad as saying, “So I’m home, and me mudder only kissed me and me fadder gave me half a dollar for being a good swimmer.”
  • The hull of the General Slocum was salvaged and turned into a barge. In December 1911, it sank in a storm off the New Jersey coast.
  • Adella Wotherspoon, who was six months old at the time, was the youngest survivor of the General Slocum calamity. She died in 2004 at the age of 100, the last living survivor of the catastrophe.
  • The General Slocum had a sister ship called the Grand Republic. It was almost equally cursed by groundings and collisions. It too met its demise by fire although this time without loss of life. The Grand Republic was tied up at a wharf in New York in 1924 when a dockside blaze spread to the vessel.
This General Slocum disaster memorial stands in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan.

This General Slocum disaster memorial stands in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan.

Sources

  • “Witness to Tragedy: The Sinking of the General Slocum.” Ted Houghtaling, New York Historical Society, February 24, 2016.
  • “Troubled Waters: The Story of the Grand Republic Steamboat, the Cursed Sister Ship of the General Slocum.” The Bowery Boys, June 17, 2014.
  • “A Spectacle of Horror – The Burning of the General Slocum.” Gilbert King, Smithsonian Magazine, February 21, 2012.
  • “The General Slocum And Little Germany.” New York Historical Society, August 22, 2004.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 19, 2021:

What a horrendous tragedy! From your account, it should never have happened. If the fire hoses, life preservers, lifeboats, etc., had all been in order, there would never have been such a huge number of lives lost.

Ann Carr from SW England on February 18, 2021:

What an accident-prone vessel! Strange how that often seems to happen. Such terrible negligence too, with apparent lack of concern from some who watched; it beggars belief that some did nothing.

Thanks for telling us about this. I love sailing and hate flying, so I'm happy to go anywhere on a boat/ship, no matter how far!

Ann

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