General Slocum

The "General Slocum" was a steamship launched in 1891. She caught fire and burned to the water line in New York's East River on June 15, 1904. More than 1,000 people died in the accident, making it New York City's worst loss-of-life disaster until the September 11, 2001 attacks. [citation|title=A Debate Rises: How Much 9/11 Tribute Is Enough?|first=N. R.|last=Kleinfeld|newspaper=The New York Times|date=2007-09-02|url=|accessdate=2007-09-02]

The ship

The ship was named for Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. It was built by Divine Burtis, Jr., a Brooklyn boatbuilder. Her keel was convert|235|ft|m long and the hull was convert|37.5|ft|m wide. The ship was built mostly of white oak and yellow pine. She displaced about 1,200 tons. She had three engines, built by W. & A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey. She was a sidewheel boat. Each wheel had 26 paddles and was convert|31|ft|m in diameter. Its maximum speed was about convert|16|kn|km/h. The ship had three decks. She usually had a crew of 22, including Captain William H. Van Schaick and two pilots.

Past problems

The "General Slocum" had seen a series of mishaps since its launch in 1891.

*Four months after launch, she ran aground off Rockaway. Tugs had to pull her free.
*On July 29, 1894, when returning from Rockaway one night with some 4,700 passengers, she struck a sand bar so forcefully her electrical generator went out. The passengers panicked; hundreds must have been injured.
*In August 1894, she ran aground off Coney Island during a storm. The passengers had to be transferred to another ship.
*In September, she collided with the tug "R. T. Sayre" in the East River. She sustained substantial damage and lost her ability to be steered.
*In July 1898 she collided with the "Amelia" near The Battery.
*On August 17, 1901 she was carrying what was described as 900 intoxicated Paterson Anarchists. Some of the passengers started a riot and attempted to take control of the vessel from the captain. The crew fought back. The captain docked at the police pier and 17 men were taken by the police.
*In June 1902, she ran aground with 400 passengers aboard. The passengers had to camp out, as she remained stuck throughout the night.

The disaster


The ship got underway at 9:30am. As she was passing East 90th Street, a fire started in a storage compartment in the forward section, possibly caused by a discarded cigarette or match. The first notice of a fire was at 10am - eyewitnesses locate the initial blaze at several locations, including a paint locker filled with flammable liquids or a cabin filled with gasoline. Captain Van Schiack was only notified ten minutes after the fire was discovered - a twelve year old boy had tried to warn him earlier, but was not believed.

On board the "Slocum", where the Captain has ultimate safety authority, he did not demand that hoses and faulty lifejackets be replaced. The fire hoses fell apart when the crew attempted to put out the fire. Also, the crew had never had a fire drill. Although the ship had lifeboats and life preservers, they were useless. Survivors reported that the life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands. The lifeboats were tied up and inaccessible. Desperate mothers placed life jackets on their children and tossed them into the water, only to watch in horror as their children sank instead of floated, due to the condition of the jackets. Also, the population of the boat consisted mainly of women and children, most of whom could not swim.

It has been suggested that the manager of the life preserver manufacturer actually placed iron bars inside the Cork preservers to meet minimum weight requirements at the time. Managers of the company (Nonpareil Cork Works) were indicted, but not convicted. Many of the life preservers had been filled with cheap and less effective granulated cork and brought up to proper weight by the inclusion of the iron weights. Canvas covers, rotted with age, split and scattered the powdered cork.

Captain Van Schaick badly mishandled the situation. He decided to continue his course rather than run the ship aground or stop at a nearby landing. (Van Schaick would later argue he was attempting to prevent the fire from spreading to riverside buildings and oil tanks.) By going into headwinds and failing to immediately ground the vessel, he actually fanned the fire. Highly flammable paint also helped the fire to spread out of control.

Some passengers attempted to jump into the river, but the clothing of the day made swimming almost impossible. Many died instantly when the 3-level floors of the overloaded boat collapsed; others were mauled by the still turning paddles.Gentile, "Shipwrecks of New Jersey", 2001]

By the time the "General Slocum" was beached at North Brother Island, just off the Bronx shore, an estimated 1,021 people had been killed by fire or drowning, with 321 survivors. Two of the 30 crewmembers died. The Captain lost sight in one eye due to the fire. Reports indicate that Van Schaick deserted the "Slocum" as soon as she ran aground, jumping into a nearby tug, along with several crew. Some say his jacket was hardly rumpled. He was hospitalized at Lebanon Hospital.

There were many acts of heroism among the passengers, witnesses, and emergency personnel. Staff and patients from the hospital on North Brother Island participated in the rescue efforts, forming human chains and pulling victims from the water.


Seven people were indicted by a Federal grand jury after the disaster: the Captain; two inspectors; and the president, secretary, treasurer and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted. He was found guilty on one of three charges: criminal negligence, failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other two counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He spent three years and six months at Sing Sing prison before he was paroled. President Theodore Roosevelt declined to pardon Captain Van Schaick, and he was not released until the federal parole board, under the William Howard Taft administration, voted to free him on August 26, 1911.Eric Robinson, New-York Historical Society Library] He was pardoned by President Taft on December 19, 1912, and died in 1927 [] .

The Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the ship, paid a relatively light fine despite evidence they may have falsified inspection records.

The remains of the "General Slocum" were recovered and converted into a barge, which sank in a storm in 1911.

The disaster motivated federal and state regulation to improve the emergency equipment on passenger ships.

The neighborhood of Little Germany declined following the disaster - many socially prominent people had been lost, and with the trauma and arguments that followed the tragedy, most of the German settlers eventually moved uptown.


.cite news
title = Thousands Sob as Baby UnVeils Slocum Statue
work =
publisher = New York Times
page = 9
url =
date = June 16, 1905
accessdate = 2007-06-26
] The previous oldest surviving member was Catherine Uhlmyer (1893-2002).

Popular culture

*There is a reference to the disaster in James Joyce's "Ulysses", the events of which take place on the following day (June 16, 1904).
*The first scenes of the film "Manhattan Melodrama" recreate the disaster.
*The 2005 Hugo award nominated novella "Time Ablaze" by Michael A. Burstein ("Analog", June 2004) concerns a time traveler who comes to record the disaster. The story was published to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
*The General Slocum disaster was featured in the documentary "My Father's Gun".
*The General Slocum disaster is at the center of the novel "The Unresolved", by T.K. Welsh.
*The disaster is also mentioned in Kevin Baker's novel "Dreamland."
*The story of the General Slocum was described as an "Avoidable Catastrophe" in Bob Fenster's book, "Duh! The Stupid History of the Human Race", in Part One, which discusses stories involving stupidity.
*The General Slocum disaster plays a prominent role in Richard Crabbe's novel "Hell's Gate"
* The story is told from the imagined point of view of survivor Adella Wotherspoon in a song recorded by the Brooklyn-based history band Pinataland.
* The disaster is mentioned in the novel "Forever" by Pete Hamill


Further reading

* Jay Nash, "Darkest Hours". Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. ISBN 0882291408
* Werner Braatz and Joseph Starr, "Fire on the River: The Story of the Burning of the General Slocum". Krokodiloplis Press, 2000. ISBN 0974936308
* Ed O'Donnell, "Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum". Broadway, 2003. ISBN 0767909054

ee also

*List of historic fires
*"Sultana" disaster

External links

* [ US Coast Guard Accident Report]
* [ "Ship Ablaze"] - website devoted to the "General Slocum" disaster
* [ Maritime Industry Museum: "General Slocum"]
* [ New York Historical Society: "General Slocum"]
* [ Brothers: NYC's worst maritime tragedy] - Photos of the islands in 2004 and images of the "General Slocum" from [ Forgotten New York] .
* [ "Remembering a Tragedy" ] - Failure Magazine, August, 2003
* German Television produced and showed an hour long documentary [ "The Slocum is on Fire!"] by Christian Baudissin (1998) about the disaster and its impact on the German community of New York.
* [ General Slocum Steamboat Mass memorial monument at Find-A-Grave]

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