At the turn of the twentieth-century, steamship accidents were commonplace. Newspapers regularly reported steam engine explosions, and even the most esteemed captains were expected to have undergone their fair share of groundings, crashes, and breakdowns. Although steamship designs constantly underwent safety improvements during the rise of the steamer in the 1850s and ‘60s, the rapidly increasing number of steamships kept the death rate rising. By the early 1900s, public outcry for stricter safety measures was largely ignored, and the safety regulations in place were poorly enforced.1 This attitude changed after the steamship disaster of 1904. On June 15th of 1904, the 264-foot steamship General Slocum, carrying 1,331 passengers from Manhattan’s Third Street Pier, caught fire in the cargo cabin near the bow. 2, 3 The entire wooden steamship soon became engulfed in flame while passengers struggled to jump ship. A combination of unprepared crew members, defective water hose and life preservers, improperly maintained life boats, and widespread panic led to an estimated 1,021 passengers burning, drowning, or being trampled to death—the largest New York catastrophe before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, nearly a century later. 4, 5
The passengers of the General Slocum on that day were the members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, on their way to Locust Grove recreation grounds on Eaton’s Neck, along the Long Island Sound, to hold their seventeenth annual picnic. St. Mark’s, located on East Sixth Street in the Lower East Side, had existed as a prominent congregation in Little Germany since 1847. In 1904, Little Germany was a one-hundred-block area that stretched north-south from Houston Street to Fourteenth Street and from Second Avenue to the East River.
Former members of the community who had moved to areas such as Brooklyn, Yorkville, or New Jersey came back every year for the famous picnic to celebrate the end of the Sunday school year and the resiliency of St. Mark’s. Nearly every family in Little Germany had friends or family members going on the excursion. Local businesses donated money to the event and bought tickets to give away to clients, both to advertise their business and to show support for St. Mark’s and the well-loved community leader, Reverend Van Haas. Two off-duty policeman, Albert T. Van Tassel and Charles Kelk of the city’s River and Harbor squad, were hired to accompany the group in order to help control the crowd and keep them safe. On the day of the affair, everyone attending marched through the streets dressed in their Sunday best. Despite all the widespread excitement, a number of families opted to stay home, fearful of the steamship accidents they had heard of in the papers.6
Five weeks before the General Slocum’s June 15th departure, the United States Steamship Inspection Service (USSIS) approved the ship’s condition. The two inspectors measured each safety boat, noting that they were secured properly and ready to be launched if needed. They inspected the bulkheads and hull for obvious leakage or wood rot, ensured that life vests were stowed in the ceiling, and checked that pumps and a water hose were available in case of fire. The inspectors did not, however, test the condition of this equipment or take care to examine the front cabin. Here, in the area known as the “lamp room,” where a lamp was placed on a large table at center, the crew housed lamp oil, brass polish, sheets of canvas, oily rags, kegs of paint, wooden barrels filled with glasses for the picnic that were carefully packed in hay, and a myriad of other highly flammable materials—a clear violation of USSIS codes.7, 8 Like most steamship companies, the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company took advantage of the incompetence and corruption of federal inspectors in order to avoid the cost of safety precautions, preferring to put money towards the steamships’ luxurious appearance.9
While the initial cause of the fire remains unknown, these safety violations were behind the fire’s progression into such a large scale disaster. When passengers noticed the flames, the untrained crew members managed to locate and turn on the hose, only to find that the thirteen year old piece of equipment was rotted. The hose burst, rendering it unusable, and crew and passengers alike were left in a panic. As the flames reached the main deck, cornered passengers began jumping off into the river. Many hit their heads on or were caught and mangled by the two large paddle wheels of the ship.10 The life boats, having been wired and painted in place, were unusable. Parents strapped life vests onto their children, but once in the water, the aged cork material within the vests disintegrated and behaved like heavy dirt, dragging the children underwater. As hundreds scrambled to avoid the flames, many were trampled underneath. Among the mass of people overboard, even those who could swim had to struggle to escape their heavy clothing and avoid being pulled under by others frantically trying to stay afloat. Captain Van Shaik, Reverend Haas, and the two policemen worked to minimize the panic on board, encouraging those who were not in immediate danger of flames to remain on ship until they reached shore. Perhaps meaning to avoid shoals and currents, Captain Shaik did not turn the ship to the nearby Queens or Bronx waterfront, but instead landed on North Brother Island, thereby losing precious time and many lives. In the meantime, onlookers leaped into action, with tugboat crews and policemen in rowboats pulling as many victims as possible from the water and off the burning ship.11
The majority of the 1,021 passengers who died were female, and 356 were children under the age of fourteen. As bodies were laid out on a pier on Brother Island, with desperate relatives searching through them for days, the image of charred bodies, entire drowned families, and dead children strapped into useless life preservers shocked the community more than any previous steamboat disaster. A number of relatives who had lost their children or their whole families to the accident attempted suicide. Six of them were successful. Anticipating bad press, the president of Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, Frank A. Barnaby, quickly began altering documents to make the life preservers seem newer than they were and issued press releases that implied that panic among the female passengers was the main cause of death. The only person prosecuted was Captain Shaik. According to laws regarding steamships at the time, the captain was responsible for passenger safety and fatalities resulting from insufficient safety precautions were manslaughter. Shaik was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing but was released after only three and a half.12
St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church continued to function despite its enormous loss. In 1905, a survivors’ group erected a memorial in honor of the sixty-one unidentified victims of the General Slocum in the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens. The death of so many inhabitants and former inhabitants of Little Germany greatly accelerated the decline of German culture in New York City.14 Although the lack of persecution for those directly responsible for the ship’s unpreparedness was a source of outrage among the public, the disaster of 1904 succeeded in at least one improvement: the USSIS was forced to require much stricter enforcement of safety regulation.15 The General Slocum disaster became a turning point in the conditions on the East River, forcing the public to take notice of the dangers that had existed for decades and forcing steamboat companies to take more thorough and effective safety precautions.
Campbell, Ballard C. “1904: General Slocum Disaster.” Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History: A Reference Guide to the Nation’s Most Catastrophic Events. 191 – 193. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008.
LiBretto, Ellen V. “Introduction.” The General Slocum Steamboat Fire of 1904. 4 – 9. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2004.
New York Correction History Society. “Rikers Island’s Unsung Heroes of the 1904 Gen Slocum Disaster.” http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/genslocum/genslocum.html
O’Donnell, Edward T. Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum. 35 – 72. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
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