112 years ago today, the General Slocum, a passenger steamboat packed with more than 1,300 people, caught fire on the East River and sank. More than 1,000 people lost their lives on that fateful morning.
The boat was filled with mostly women and children parishioners from the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th Street – the church was a pivotal center for the German-American community of the Lower East Side. The General Slocum had been chartered for their annual picnic excursion and was headed out to Locust Grove in Long Island.
While underway on the East River, the boat caught fire. Fueled by oily rags, lamp oil and other flammable liquids, the fire spread out of control, the flames fanned by Captain Van Schaick‘s decision to continue his course into headwinds.
In 1904, few people knew how to swim, and the heavy woolen clothing of the day didn’t help. To make matters worse, “safety” equipment aboard was ill-maintained, sub-standard and lacked any oversight or regulation.
Wikipedia: Although the captain was ultimately responsible for the safety of passengers, the owners had made no effort to maintain or replace the ship’s safety equipment. The fire hoses had been allowed to rot, and fell apart when the crew tried to put out the fire. The crew had never practiced a fire drill, and the lifeboats were tied up and inaccessible. (Some claim they were wired and painted in place.)
Survivors reported that the life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands. 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 floating.
General Slocum sank in shallow water near North Brother Island. There were just 321 survivors. The disaster compelled federal and state legislators to improve oversight and regulation of emergency equipment on all passenger ships.
In 1906, a marble memorial fountain was erected at Tompkins Square Park where it still stands today.
posted by Mai Armstrong for the Working Harbor Committee