The centennial of the General Slocum disaster provides an opportunity to ask a probing question: how did a disaster which claimed the lives of 1,021 people in the nation's largest metropolis become an all-but-forgotten footnote to history? By far the nation's most deadly peacetime maritime disaster, it was also New York's deadliest day before September 11, 2001. Yet whenever I asked anyone to name Gotham's worst calamity, I invariably got the same answer: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. That tragedy actually claimed far fewer lives (146) than the Slocum.
The story of the General Slocum tragedy begins in the thriving German neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. One of its sanctuaries, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th Street, held an annual outing to celebrate the end of the Sunday school year. The congregants usually chartered an excursion boat.
Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the day of the outing, dawned a beautiful spring morning. Shortly before 10 a.m., the General Slocum pulled away from its pier. It chugged up the East River, gradually increasing speed. Hundreds of children jammed the upper deck. The adults socialized while a band played German favorites
Then disaster struck. As the ship passed East 90th Street, smoke started billowing from a forward storage room. A spark, most likely from a carelessly tossed match, had ignited a barrel of straw. By the time crewmen notified Captain William Van Schaick â€“ fully 10 minutes after discovering the fire â€“ the blaze raged out of control.
The captain looked to the piers along the East River but feared he might touch off an explosion among the many oil tanks there. Instead, he opted to proceed at top speed to North Brother Island, a mile ahead.
The increased speed fanned the flames. Passengers began to jump overboard. Most did not know how to swim and drowned. The inexperienced crew provided no help. Neither did the life jackets, which were rotten and filled with disintegrated cork. Those who put them on sank as soon as they hit the water. Wired in place, none of the lifeboats could be dislodged.
When the boat finally beached at North Brother Island, it was almost completely engulfed in fire. The General Slocum left a grisly wake. The boats that followed it plucked a few survivors from the water but found mostly the lifeless bodies of the ill-fated passengers. The fact that they were young children only added to the horror. Rescue workers wept openly. When they finished counting the bodies, the death toll stood at 1,021.
The tragedy provoked widespread outrage, as survivors told of incompetent crewmen, useless fire hose and rotten life preserves, while questioning why the captain took so long to bring the steamer ashore.
Seven years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burned and replaced the Slocum as the city’s great fire. Both fires killed mostly female immigrants, and aroused public wrath over callous corporate negligence. But the Triangle fire supplanted the Slocum tragedy in New York’s memory, even with its 85 percent lower death toll. Why?
First, the Triangle fire occurred during a time of intense labor struggle. Only a year earlier, tens of thousands of shirtwaist makers had staged a strike for better wages, hours and conditions. When 146 of them lay dead, there was no question as to who was to blame. This conclusion was reinforced when the public learned that the factory owners had locked the exits to keep the women at their machines.
Additionally, the Slocum tragedy was a “concentrated tragedy.” The majority of those killed were from a single parish and living within a 40-block area. Although their fellow New Yorkers were horrified by the tragedy, only a few were directly affected.
World War I also contributed to the forgetting process. Anti-German sentiment eradicated sympathy for anything German, including innocent victims of the General Slocum fire.
Finally, we must consider Gotham’s relentless pursuit of all that is new. “The present in New York is so powerful,” writer John Jay Chapman noted, “that the past is lost.” Indeed, within the city’s four centuries of history, only a handful of traumatic events are well known, chief among them the Draft Riots of 1863 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Perhaps, then, the real question is not why the Slocum fire is so little known but why the Triangle fire has been raised to such mythical status.
Whatever the explanation, the General Slocum never disappeared entirely. In 1922, the story achieved a bit of immortality when James Joyce included a half-page reference to it in his monumental work, Ulysses. In 1934, the Slocum gained a different sort of immortality in the film Manhattan Melodrama. It opens with a stunning re-enactment of the fire as a set-up for a story about two orphaned boys. In 1954, the New-York Historical Society mounted a small 50th-anniversary exhibit about the Slocum fire.
It was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, that brought a renewed interest in the Slocum tragedy. Although one event was a willful act of destruction and murder and the other a tragedy born of negligence, greed and bad luck, there are many parallels. The most obvious was the profound shock and horror felt by the people of New York.
Another parallel was the selfless heroism exhibited by both uniformed personnel and everyday people on the scenes. Although no rescuers died in the Slocum fire, many risked their lives so that others might live.
A final parallel concerns the effort to build fitting memorials to the victims. Behind these initiatives lies a three-fold goal: to honor the dead, to provide the living with a place of contemplation and to ensure that society never forgets what happened.
Yet, the actual memory of traumatic events like the Slocum fire lives on only in the hearts and minds of those who experienced them. The only real memory of the Slocum fire died with the last living survivor. It will exist for succeeding generations, not as a memory but as a cautionary tale of greed and carelessness and a story of unspeakable loss and extraordinary courage.
Edward T. O’Donnell, associate professor of history at the college of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, is the author of “Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum.”
This article is excerpted from the spring 2004 issue of “The New-York Journal of American History,” the semiannual publication of the New-York Historical Society.