The General Slocum Disaster
If you ask New Yorkers, besides the bombing of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001, what was the biggest disaster in New York City history, most would say the Triangle Shirtwaist Factor Fire of 1911, which killed 141 people, mostly women. But by far the worst tragedy ever to take place in New York City was the now forgotten 1904 General Slocam paddle boat disaster, in which more than 1000 German people, mostly woman and children, perished in an accident that certainly could have been prevented.
Starting in the 1840’s, tens of thousands of German immigrants began flooding the lower east side of Manhattan, which is now called Alphabet City, but what was then called the Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. Just in the 1850’s alone over 800,000 Germans came into America, and by 1855, New York City had the third largest German population of any city in the world.
The German immigrants were different than the Irish immigrants who, due to the Irish potato famine in Ireland, were also emigrating to New York City at a fast pace during the middle part of the 19th century. Whereas the Irish were mostly lower-class laborers, the Germans were better educated and possessed skills that made them obtain a higher rung on the economic ladder than did the Irish. More than half the bakers in New York City were of German descent, and most cabinet makers in New York City were either German, or of German descent. Germans were also very active in the construction business, which at the time was very profitable, because of all the large buildings being built in New York City during the mid and late 1800’s.
Joseph Wedemeyer, Oswald Ottendorfer and Friedrich Sorge were New York City German-Americans who were extremely active in the creation and growth of trade unions. In New York City, German-American clubs, which were called Vereins, were highly involved in politics. Ottendorfer owned and edited the Staats-Zeitung, the largest German-American newspaper in town. He became such a force in politics, in 1861, he was instrumental, through his German Democracy political club, in getting New York City Mayor Fernando Wood elected for his second term. In 1863, Ottendorfer propelled another German, Godfrey Gunther, to succeed Wood as mayor.
Little Germany reached its peak in the 1870’s. It then encompassed over 400 blocks, comprised of six avenues and forty streets, running south from 14th Street to Houston Street, and from the Bowery east to the East River. Tompkins Square and it park was consider the epicenter of Little Germany. The park itself was called the Weisse Garten, where Germans congregated daily to discuss what was important to the lives and livelihoods.
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Avenue B was called the German Broadway, where almost every building contained a first floor store, or a workshop, marketing every sort of commodity that was desired by the German populace. Avenue A was know for its beer gardens, oyster saloons and assorted grocery stores. In Little Germany there were also sporting clubs, libraries, choirs, shooting clubs, factories, department stores, German theaters, German schools, German churches, and German synagogues for the German Jews.
Starting around 1880, the wealthier Germans began moving out of New York City to the suburbs. And by the turn of the 20th Century, the German population in Little Germany had shrunk to around 50,000 people, still a sizable amount for any ethnic neighborhood in New York City.
On June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th Street charted the paddle boat General Slocum, for the sum of $350, to take members of its congregation to its yearly picnic, celebrating the end of the school year. At a few minutes after 9 a.m., more than 1300 people boarded the General Slocum. Their destination was the Locust Grove on Long Island Sound, where they expected to enjoy a day of swimming, games, and the best of German food.
The General Slocum, owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, was named for Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. It was built by W. & A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was a sidewheel paddle boat powered by a single-cylinder, surface condensing vertical beam steam engine with 53 inch bore and 12 foot stroke. Each wheel had 26 paddles and was 31 feet in diameter. Her maximum speed was about 16 knots.
Almost from the day of its launching in 1891, the General Slocum suffered one mishap after another. Four months after her launching, the General Slocum ran aground near the Rockaways. Several tugboats were needed to drag the General Slocum back into the water.
1894 was an exceptionally bad year for the General Slocum. On June 29th, the General Slocum was returning from the Rockaways with 4700 passengers on board. Suddenly, it struck a sandbar so hard, that her electrical generator blew out. In August, during a terrible rain storm, the General Slocum ran aground a second time, this time near Coney Island. The passengers had to be transferred to another ship in order to make their way back home. The next month the General Slocum hit the trifecta when it collided with the tug boat R. T. Sayre in the midst of the East River. In this incident, the General Slocum’s steering was severely damaged, and it had to be repaired. The General Slocum was accident free until July of 1898, when the General Slocum collided with the Amelia near Battery Park.
On August 17, 1901, The General Slocum was carrying, what was described as “900 intoxicated Patterson Anarchists.” Suddenly, some of the passengers started to riot. Others tried to physically take control of the boat, by storming the bridge. However the crew fought the rioters off and were able to keep control of the boat. When the captain docked at the police pier, 17 “anarchists” were arrested.
Finally, in June of 1902, the General Slocum ran aground again. The boat was unable to be freed, so its passengers had to camp out the entire night until reinforcements could arrive the following morning. The captain of the boat in that incident was none other than Captain William H. Van Schaick, the same man who would be the chief officer of the General Slocum on its last voyage.
On June 15, 1904, about 15 minutes after the General Slocum left the pier at East Third Street, it was even with East 125th Street. At this point, Captain Van Schaick was notified by one of his crew that a fire had started in the Lamp Room, in the forward section of the boat. The fire was probably ignited by a discarded cigarette or a match, and it was obviously fueled by the straw, oily rags, and lamp oil strewn around the room. The Captain had been told there was a fire on board a few minutes earlier by a 12-year-old boy, but Captain Van Schaick did not believe the boy. Other people on board said the fire had started almost simultaneously in several locations, including a paint locker filled with flammable fluids, and a cabin filled with gasoline.
This is where Captain Van Schaick made a terrible mistake in judgment. Since land was close by, all the Captain had to do was run his ship aground before the flames spread any further. Then he could unload his passengers, mostly woman and children, quickly before there were any fatalities. But for some reason Captain Van Schaick decided to head straight into a headwind and try to land his boat at North Brother Island, just off the southern shore of the Bronx. Captain Van Schaick would later say the reason for his decision was that he was trying to prevent the fire from spreading on land to riverside buildings and oil tanks. But by going into heavy headwinds, he was actually fanning the fire.
Captain Van Schaick later said at his trial, “I started to head for One Hundred and Thirty-fourth Street, but was warned off by the captain of a tugboat, who shouted to me that the boat would set fire to the lumber yards and oil tanks there. Besides, I knew that the shore was lined with rocks and the boat would founder if I put in there. I then fixed upon North Brother Island.”
As the boat chugged onward, passengers ran in panic around the deck. Mothers were looking for their children. Father’s were looking for their families. Young boys and girls scrambled onto the deck chairs, waving frantically for help at the crowds who had assembled on the shore. The flames increased by the second, accelerated by the boat’s fresh coat of highly flammable paint.
At this point, overcome by smoke inhalation, and with the flames flickering at their torsos, feet and faces, people began jumping into the water. Some were rescued by boats which had rushed near the fiery General Slocum. But most of the woman and girls, because of the bulky woman’s clothing of that era, quickly drowned. Some people died when the floors of the boat collapsed. Others were beaten to death by the still churning paddles, as they flung themselves over the sides of the boat towards the water.
People that tried to use the life jackets on board were in for a horrible surprise. Although there were 3000 life jackets available, they were all but useless. The vast majority were rotted out, with the cork inside the jackets used for buoyancy almost entirely disintegrated. The people who did don the life jacked and plunged into the water, immediately sank like a rock. Some people tried to dislodge the emergency lifeboats, but they failed to do so because the lifeboats were firmly wired in place.