Gotham Gazette

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Forgetting -- and Remembering -- the Slocum


It Happened In 1904:
• Looking Back at 100
• How The Subway Shaped New York
• A Century Of Subway Activism
• Times Square: 100 Years of Pleasure and Dissipation
• Forgetting – and Remembering – the Slocum
• Also: A page of NYC history sites

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 – fully 10 minutes after discovering the fire – 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.

A Century Of Subway Activism


It Happened In 1904:
• Looking Back at 100
• How The Subway Shaped New York
• A Century Of Subway Activism
• Times Square: 100 Years of Pleasure and Dissipation
• Forgetting – and Remembering – the Slocum
• Also: A page of NYC history sites

New York’s subways were born of activism. During the 1890s, reformers had a vision for the city. They dreamed of a reliable and inexpensive transit system that would allow workers to escape a squalid lower Manhattan and commute to and from affordable housing around town.

To a great degree, their vision came true. As subway lines opened between 1904 and 1940, so did thriving new neighborhoods from Harlem to Sunnyside to Bay Ridge. The subways shaped the city.

That tradition of activism continued, becoming particularly pronounced in the last 25 years as riders have fought to bring the subway and bus system back from near collapse.


In the late 1970s, the decline of the city’s transit system echoed the city’s decline. The subway was notoriously unreliable, covered with graffiti and plagued with spiraling crime, fires and derailments. By 1981, subway ridership fell to its lowest level since 1917 and bus ridership also plummeted.

While city subways and buses are far from perfect today, riders and transit advocates have won tremendous progress since the early 1980s.

Today, trains are nearly 20 times more reliable than they were then. Ridership has bounced back to levels not seen since the 1950s. Graffiti on subway cars has been largely eliminated, and transit crime, fires and derailments have all been dramatically reduced.

Starting in 1997, riders could transfer for free between subways and buses — ending almost a century of griping about “two-fare zones” in neighborhoods from Sheepshead Bay to Coop City. A year later, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began offering unlimited-ride monthly, weekly and daily passes. Today, more than half of all trips are taken on these cards.

Of course, none of this happened by accident. Since 1981, more than $30 billion (that’s billion with a B) has been invested in the subways and buses, and another $15 billion in our two commuter-rail lines.

The money was used to replace or rehabilitate every subway car and bus. The MTA expanded the subway fleet by 400 cars and increased the number of buses by 800 in order to meet growing service demands. It refurbished nearly half of all subway stations, and $750 million was invested in automating turnstiles to make fare discounts possible.


How did the riders win these victories? Transit activism played a major role.

One good example is the Franklin Avenue Shuttle. The four-stop line would not exist but for local activists in central Brooklyn who struggled for more than two decades to rebuild the line, a vital transit link in Flatbush, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Transit officials, eager to abandon the shuttle, had long neglected it. In winter, officials would routinely close the shuttle because they feared it would derail. Riders bought tokens at station booths riddled with bullet holes, and portions of platforms were sealed off because they had burned or collapsed.

But over many years, community leaders — like Helmuth Lesold, Mabel Boston and Francis Byrd — worked to restore the line. They were a constant prod at town hall meetings, news conferences and meetings with transit officials. They convinced the New York State Assembly to force the MTA to give the shuttle a $75 million top-to-bottom makeover.

The shuttle reopened in 1999, replete with bright accessible stations adorned with murals and windows created by local artists.

Time and again, the Straphangers Campaign, where I am staff attorney, and which is itself celebrating its 25th anniversary, has watched communities fight for their subway station or their neighborhood lines and bus routes:

  • In the early 1980s, the organizing and outrage of West Side activists turned the 1, 2 and 3 from the worst subway lines in the city to among the best.
  • Transit officials sought to abandon the Intervale Avenue station in the Bronx after arsonists destroyed it. But business and civic leaders protested and, in 1992, persuaded transit officials to rebuild it.
  • Students at the College of Staten Island and Queensborough Community College won new bus routes to their campuses in 2001 and 2002.

And over the years, there have been memorable meetings where New Yorkers have confronted elected and MTA officials about the state of transit in the city:

(L) Pressure from transit riders and workers kept the fare at a nickel between 1904 and 1947. (R) Marilyn Ondrasik founded the Straphangers Campaign with support from the Fund for the City of New York and the New York Foundation.

The 1980 Transit Speakout: A thousand people packed an auditorium on the West Side of Manhattan and vented on then-MTA Chair Richard Ravitch. One handed him a violin and said he was fiddling while the system burned; another said that people in the Bronx called the Number Two train the “Never Two.” A panel peppered Ravitch with tough questions, and a sixth-grader rated each answer as a “Yes,” “No,” or “Run Around.” Ravitch left discomforted, but the next day the forum made the front page of the Sunday Daily News. Ravitch carried that clipping around with him for months, waving it at state legislators who, several months later, approved a $7 billion, five-year transit rebuilding program.

Demanding Service: In 1991, New York City Transit officials proposed the most significant round of service cuts since the 1975 fiscal crisis. They held hearings and got an earful. A mother from the Lower East Side pointed out that cutting a route would force her children to transfer at a corner infested with drug dealers. Senior citizens on Grymes Hill on Staten Island showed how eliminating weekend bus service would isolate them from friends, church and shopping. To his everlasting credit, after the hearings, then-MTA Chairman Peter Stangl withdrew all the service cuts.

The Yellow School Bus: In 1995, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to cut $128 million in funding for the student transit passes that more than half a million children rely on to get to school and extra-curricular activities. Scores of students, parents, education advocates, and elected officials crowded a public comment session to denounce the proposal. A deal saved most of the funding.

The Eyes and Ears of the Subways: In 2000, New York City Transit proposed closing scores of station booths and said no hearings were required. Along with a handful of elected officials, community groups and Transport Workers Union Local 100, the Straphangers Campaign differed. The courts agreed, the public showed up in droves, and transit officials pulled back on 112 of 177 proposed closings. (The same issue will play out in November, with the MTA proposing cutting another 164 booths.)

Now, the MTA plans to hold hearing on November 8, 9 and 10, on proposals to raise subway and bus fares. The public can make these meetings as memorable as some of those in the past. (For more information on the hearings or to comment by e-mail, go to the MTA Web site.)

Certainly, as it marks its centennial, transit needs riders’ voices more than ever. The system confronts many severe challenges.

The MTA faces large and growing deficits and has proposed fare increases and service cuts, less than 18 months after the biggest fare hike in city history. Starved by the state and city governments for adequate funds, much of the agency’s financial woes are due to soaring bills it must pay on the billions of dollars it borrowed to rebuild the system. The MTA’s debt service will double between 2004 and 2007 from $800 million annually to $1.6 billion.

At the same time, the MTA is proposing a new $27.6 billion five-year rebuilding program. This plan deserves public support because the system has critical needs, especially in its core program:

  • buying new subway cars and buses;
  • rehabilitating scores of dingy, outmoded and inaccessible stations;
  • and maintaining the basic infrastructure.

Officials have also proposed a wide array of transit expansion projects. Some of the projects are essential to the city’s long-term future, like the Second Avenue Subway. Some are debatable, like a costly link between the Long Island Rail Road and Lower Manhattan.

But however worthy, none should move forward if the MTA cannot also continue its robust program to rebuild the existing system. New York should not go the way of London, which built a new subway line while letting its fabled Underground deteriorate.

New revenue sources are desperately needed to rebuild and to maintain fares and service at attractive levels. More than ever, we need business, labor and civic leaders and — most of all — the riders to speak up for transit.

Will Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg save transit riders from having to pay more for less? Will the governor and the mayor continue 25 years of transit reinvestment and rebuilding? The odds are much better if riders ask them to.

A new round of victories would be the best way to celebrate what riders have done to win the rebirth of city transit over the last 25 years.

Gene Russianoff is staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign.

“The Riders and the Rebirth of City Transit: 25 Years of Advocacy by the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign” is on display at the Municipal Art Society until October 30.

How The Subway Shaped New York


It Happened In 1904:
• Looking Back at 100
• How The Subway Shaped New York
• A Century Of Subway Activism
• Times Square: 100 Years of Pleasure and Dissipation
• Forgetting – and Remembering – the Slocum
• Also: A page of NYC history sites

Although New York had long been the most heterogeneous city in the world, it took rapid transit to bring diverse social groups into regular contact. New Yorkers reacted differently to subway riding. For some, the subway’s speed and technology had a liberating, euphoric effect. Many other riders, though, resented the personal indignities of overcrowding and disliked being trapped in a small, confined space. When ethnic, gender and class differences were added to overcrowding and claustrophobia, the riding experience could be anxiety provoking.

The first subway route was the product of a mercantile elite. In 1913, though, a second stage of subway construction was authorized. The dual contract system, as it was known, was conceived by progressive reformers as an ambitious experiment in social planning designed to alleviate urban poverty and to assimilate immigrants. The dual system doubled the city’s rapid transit mileage to serve outlying portions of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn and allowing working class residents to move to new areas on the outskirts.

The subway contributed to the modern city by reinforcing the extent to which New York’s spatial pattern differed from that of other big American cities. New York City is among the few U.S. cities that departs from the “doughnut” pattern of low-income and decreasing population in the center and high-income and increasing population on the periphery. New York is centered on Manhattan, which has a population that is both comparatively affluent and that has high residential densities, a combination that contributes to many of the city’s characteristics: its rapid pace, its emphasis on consumption and fashion and its 24-hour operation.

Most New Yorkers live in apartments. Every morning, hundreds of thousands empty out of their apartments and commute to midtown and lower Manhattan; every night they return home. Rapid transit’s ability to transport large numbers of people quickly and efficiently permits the dense concentration of nighttime populations in residential neighborhoods and daytime populations in midtown and Wall Street.

The subway also figures in the spatial and social gulf that divides New York City from its suburbs. New York City has the nation’s highest population densities, while its suburbs extend farther than any other.

Avenue Subway Construction, 16th Street. 1937

The New York region’s distorted transportation planning is largely responsible for this. When the third and last major phase of subway construction came to an end in 1940, the metropolis became committed to the automobile and almost all new improvement consisted of vehicular highways. More than ever before, the subway set New York City apart.

While New York has had to support its own transit network, cities such as Houston and Atlanta for their transportation rely on interstate highways, which have been financed by the federal government. Beginning in the 1960s, the federal government recognized that mass transit could no longer be dealt with on a local level. The Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964 initiated federal funding of transit construction. During the resulting boom, a number of cities built light-rail systems. Because these federal subsidies have been targeted to promote the construction of new lines rather than underwrite service or the rehabilitation of existing systems, New York City had to maintain its aging subway system largely by itself, a formidable undertaking at a time when the departure of middle-class residents to the suburbs was eroding its tax base.

The failure to correct the subway’s chronic fiscal problems, along with growing competition from the private automobile after World War II, led to the system’s near collapse in the 1970s. The subway has recently experienced a renaissance, however. Since the late 1980s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has rebuilt every miles of track, refurbished dozens of stations and acquired hundreds of new cars. It is now considering the construction of the first new subway lines in decades, including the famously delayed Second Avenue route.

There is nonetheless good reason for caution. The new lines remain in planning stages and are at the mercy of changing political currents and economic conditions. Moreover, the subway’s renewal is imperiled by the financial constraints of the municipal government and the disregard of the federal government. Still, because the progress that has been made has created a new sense of hope and possibility, the subway’s second century looks promising: New Yorkers are not through making history with the subway. Clifton Hood, an associate professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., is the author of “722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York.”

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.

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