If you ask New Yorkers, besides the bombing of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001, what was the biggest disaster in New York City history, most would say the Triangle Shirtwaist Factor Fire of 1911, which killed 141 people, mostly women. But by far the worst tragedy ever to take place in New York City was the now forgotten 1904 General Slocam paddle boat disaster, in which more than 1000 German people, mostly woman and children, perished in an accident that certainly could have been prevented.
Starting in the 1840’s, tens of thousands of German immigrants began flooding the lower east side of Manhattan, which is now called Alphabet City, but what was then called the Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. Just in the 1850’s alone over 800,000 Germans came into America, and by 1855, New York City had the third largest German population of any city in the world.
The German immigrants were different than the Irish immigrants who, due to the Irish potato famine in Ireland, were also emigrating to New York City at a fast pace during the middle part of the 19th century. Whereas the Irish were mostly lower-class laborers, the Germans were better educated and possessed skills that made them obtain a higher rung on the economic ladder than did the Irish. More than half the bakers in New York City were of German descent, and most cabinet makers in New York City were either German, or of German descent. Germans were also very active in the construction business, which at the time was very profitable, because of all the large buildings being built in New York City during the mid and late 1800’s.
Joseph Wedemeyer, Oswald Ottendorfer and Friedrich Sorge were New York City German-Americans who were extremely active in the creation and growth of trade unions. In New York City, German-American clubs, which were called Vereins, were highly involved in politics. Ottendorfer owned and edited the Staats-Zeitung, the largest German-American newspaper in town. He became such a force in politics, in 1861, he was instrumental, through his German Democracy political club, in getting New York City Mayor Fernando Wood elected for his second term. In 1863, Ottendorfer propelled another German, Godfrey Gunther, to succeed Wood as mayor.
Little Germany reached its peak in the 1870’s. It then encompassed over 400 blocks, comprised of six avenues and forty streets, running south from 14th Street to Houston Street, and from the Bowery east to the East River. Tompkins Square and it park was consider the epicenter of Little Germany. The park itself was called the Weisse Garten, where Germans congregated daily to discuss what was important to the lives and livelihoods.
Avenue B was called the German Broadway, where almost every building contained a first floor store, or a workshop, marketing every sort of commodity that was desired by the German populace. Avenue A was know for its beer gardens, oyster saloons and assorted grocery stores. In Little Germany there were also sporting clubs, libraries, choirs, shooting clubs, factories, department stores, German theaters, German schools, German churches, and German synagogues for the German Jews.
Starting around 1880, the wealthier Germans began moving out of New York City to the suburbs. And by the turn of the 20th Century, the German population in Little Germany had shrunk to around 50,000 people, still a sizable amount for any ethnic neighborhood in New York City.
On June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th Street charted the paddle boat General Slocum, for the sum of $350, to take members of its congregation to its yearly picnic, celebrating the end of the school year. At a few minutes after 9 a.m., more than 1300 people boarded the General Slocum. Their destination was the Locust Grove on Long Island Sound, where they expected to enjoy a day of swimming, games, and the best of German food.
The General Slocum, owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, was named for Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. It was built by W. & A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was a sidewheel paddle boat powered by a single-cylinder, surface condensing vertical beam steam engine with 53 inch bore and 12 foot stroke. Each wheel had 26 paddles and was 31 feet in diameter. Her maximum speed was about 16 knots.
Almost from the day of its launching in 1891, the General Slocum suffered one mishap after another. Four months after her launching, the General Slocum ran aground near the Rockaways. Several tugboats were needed to drag the General Slocum back into the water.
1894 was an exceptionally bad year for the General Slocum. On June 29th, the General Slocum was returning from the Rockaways with 4700 passengers on board. Suddenly, it struck a sandbar so hard, that her electrical generator blew out. In August, during a terrible rain storm, the General Slocum ran aground a second time, this time near Coney Island. The passengers had to be transferred to another ship in order to make their way back home. The next month the General Slocum hit the trifecta when it collided with the tug boat R. T. Sayre in the midst of the East River. In this incident, the General Slocum’s steering was severely damaged, and it had to be repaired. The General Slocum was accident free until July of 1898, when the General Slocum collided with the Amelia near Battery Park.
On August 17, 1901, The General Slocum was carrying, what was described as “900 intoxicated Patterson Anarchists.” Suddenly, some of the passengers started to riot. Others tried to physically take control of the boat, by storming the bridge. However the crew fought the rioters off and were able to keep control of the boat. When the captain docked at the police pier, 17 “anarchists” were arrested.
Finally, in June of 1902, the General Slocum ran aground again. The boat was unable to be freed, so its passengers had to camp out the entire night until reinforcements could arrive the following morning. The captain of the boat in that incident was none other than Captain William H. Van Schaick, the same man who would be the chief officer of the General Slocum on its last voyage.
On June 15, 1904, about 15 minutes after the General Slocum left the pier at East Third Street, it was even with East 125th Street. At this point, Captain Van Schaick was notified by one of his crew that a fire had started in the Lamp Room, in the forward section of the boat. The fire was probably ignited by a discarded cigarette or a match, and it was obviously fueled by the straw, oily rags, and lamp oil strewn around the room. The Captain had been told there was a fire on board a few minutes earlier by a 12-year-old boy, but Captain Van Schaick did not believe the boy. Other people on board said the fire had started almost simultaneously in several locations, including a paint locker filled with flammable fluids, and a cabin filled with gasoline.
This is where Captain Van Schaick made a terrible mistake in judgment. Since land was close by, all the Captain had to do was run his ship aground before the flames spread any further. Then he could unload his passengers, mostly woman and children, quickly before there were any fatalities. But for some reason Captain Van Schaick decided to head straight into a headwind and try to land his boat at North Brother Island, just off the southern shore of the Bronx. Captain Van Schaick would later say the reason for his decision was that he was trying to prevent the fire from spreading on land to riverside buildings and oil tanks. But by going into heavy headwinds, he was actually fanning the fire.
Captain Van Schaick later said at his trial, “I started to head for One Hundred and Thirty-fourth Street, but was warned off by the captain of a tugboat, who shouted to me that the boat would set fire to the lumber yards and oil tanks there. Besides, I knew that the shore was lined with rocks and the boat would founder if I put in there. I then fixed upon North Brother Island.”
As the boat chugged onward, passengers ran in panic around the deck. Mothers were looking for their children. Father’s were looking for their families. Young boys and girls scrambled onto the deck chairs, waving frantically for help at the crowds who had assembled on the shore. The flames increased by the second, accelerated by the boat’s fresh coat of highly flammable paint.
At this point, overcome by smoke inhalation, and with the flames flickering at their torsos, feet and faces, people began jumping into the water. Some were rescued by boats which had rushed near the fiery General Slocum. But most of the woman and girls, because of the bulky woman’s clothing of that era, quickly drowned. Some people died when the floors of the boat collapsed. Others were beaten to death by the still churning paddles, as they flung themselves over the sides of the boat towards the water.
People that tried to use the life jackets on board were in for a horrible surprise. Although there were 3000 life jackets available, they were all but useless. The vast majority were rotted out, with the cork inside the jackets used for buoyancy almost entirely disintegrated. The people who did don the life jacked and plunged into the water, immediately sank like a rock. Some people tried to dislodge the emergency lifeboats, but they failed to do so because the lifeboats were firmly wired in place.
People from the shore saw a girl in a blue dress jump off the side of the boat. They watched in horror as the girl hit the wooded paddle wheel. The wheel churned violently, dragging the girl under it. The people on shore could hear the screaming girl’s frail body being threshed about like a rag doll by the paddle wheel, before her screaming stopped and she disappeared into the murky waters. A little boy, clutching his stuffed toy dog, was thrown into the river by his weeping mother. The boy was fished from the river alive, still squeezing his precious toy dog.
16-year-old Albert Frese was one of the lucky ones who survived the General Slocum disaster. Frese, at the time, was a mail clerk in the Funk and Wagnalls publishing house. As horrified people scampered all around him, Frese hurried to the stern of the burning boat. According to Edward Ross Ellis’ The Epic of New York City, “Frese jumped feet first, with his ankles together and his arms rigid at his side. He was able to swim safely to shore, and later became treasurer of his firm.”
As Captain Van Schaick resolutely and pigheadedly steered his boat onward, people on Manhattan’s eastern shore were now running frantically along the riverbank, trying to keep pace with the burning boat. Others were mobilized in wagons and carts, screaming for the Captain to run his boat ashore. Some people flung barrels into the river for the people floundering in the water to use as makeshift life preservers. Small boats tried to chase down the General Slocum from behind, but they were unable to do so. However, some of these boats were able to fish the better swimmers out of the water and bring them safely to shore.
Despite the utter mayhem, and the pleading of the people on the shore to run his boat aground, Captain Van Schaick, his own clothes on fire, ignored them and continued toward North Brother Island. When Captain Van Schaick finally beached his boat at North Brother Island, the boat was one huge fireball.
Captain Van Schaick said later, “I stuck to my post in the pilothouse until my cap caught fire. We were then about twenty-five feet off North Brother Island. She went on the beach, bow on, in about twenty-five feet of water…. Most of the people aft, where the fire raged fiercest, jumped in when we were in deep water, and were carried away. We had no chance to lower the lifeboats. They were burned before the crew could get at them.”
At North Brother Island, nurses, doctors, and even the patients in the island’s contagious disease hospital, rushed to help the survivors. Some carried ladders, which they used to guide the survivors, most badly burned, down from the boat. Others caught little children who were heaved down to them by hysterical parents. Within minutes, all the survivors, including the captain and several crew members, where taken safely away from the flaming boat and admitted to the hospital.
From his hospital window, a feverish measles patient saw the horror transpiring. He summoned the courage, hurried from the hospital and sprinted into the water. He was able to save several children. A nurse who couldn’t swim dashed into the river to grab several children. She did this repeatedly, when suddenly the tide pulled her into deeper water. Incredibly, the nurse found out she could indeed swim, and she continued rescuing whomever she could reach.
City Health Commissioner Darlington was present on North Brother Island the day the fiery General Slocum ran aground. “I will never be able to forget the scene, the utter horror of it,” Darlington said. “The patients in the contagious wards, especially in the scarlet fever ward, went wild at things they saw from their windows and went screaming and beating at the doors until it took fifty nurses and doctors to quiet them. They were all locked up. Along the beach the boats were carrying in the living and dying and towing in the dead.”
When the fire first started, someone rang the city desk of the World on Park Row. The man, who didn’t identify himself, told the newspaper editor that he was in his office at 137th Street and he could see the burning boat from his office window. The editor immediately contacted Eugene Moran, who owned a tugboat company at 134th Street. Moran told the editor that he had no tugboats available in that area, but that it would be faster anyway to send his men by elevated train from the Park Row station to the Morris Park station in the north Bronx. The editor ordered his men onto the train, and as a result, the World had the story of the tragedy before any other New York City newspaper.
When the World reporters arrived on the scene, they were overcome with grief. As the boat was enveloped in smoke and flames, the reporters and the World’s photographers spotted dozens of blackened and bloody dead bodies scattered along the shore line. As the photographers snapped away and the reporters jotted down their notes, several hardened newspapermen broke down in tears. Then they rushed to find phones so that they could deliver their stories to the rewrite men at their newspaper. Their description of the tragedy on the phones were so graphic, when the rewrite men heard what had transpired, they rushed into the men’s room to vomit.
The New York Times reported the following day, “On the night of June 15, 1904, grief-crazed crowds lined the shore where the bodies were being brought in by the boatload. Scores were prevented from throwing themselves into the river.”
The police released a report a few days later claiming that 1,031 people had perished in the General Slocum fire. For the next few weeks, police divers searched for bodies in the partially sunk remains of the General Slocum. Police and rescue parties scoured the banks of the river for miles in both directions looking for bodies.
On the night of the fire, scores of husbands came home from work only to discover that their entire families had perished in the fire. Some committed suicide, others went mad, and some later died of grief. For three days, hearses transversed the streets of Little Germany carrying bodies, and parts of bodies, to their graves in Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.
A Federal grand jury indicted eight people as a result of the disaster. Those people included Captain Van Schaick, two boat inspectors, and the president, secretary, treasurer, and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. However, only Captain Van Schaick was convicted at trial. The charges the Captain was convicted on were criminal negligence, failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers. There was a hung jury on the manslaughter charge. Captain Van Schaick was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The Captain served three and a half years at Sing Sing Prison before he received parole. On August 26, 1911, the administration of President William Howard Taft voted to release Captain Van Schaick from parole. And on December 19, 1912, President Taft pardoned the Captain. Captain Van Schaick died in 1927.
The Knickerbocker Steamship Company received a ridiculously small fine, even though there was sufficient evidence that they had falsified inspection records. The sunken remains of the General Slocum were raised to the surface, and subsequently converted into a barge, which predictably sank during a storm in 1911.
The tragedy of the General Slocum forced a major reconstruction of steamboat safety regulations. A week after the fire, President Theodore Roosevelt order a five-man commission to investigate why the tragedy had occurred, and what could be done to prevent it from happening again in the future. The commission was especially tough on the United States Steamboat Inspection Service (USSIS), who had failed miserable at their job of ensuring steamboat safety. Dozens of USSIS employees were fired, and new inspections of all steamboats ordered. Predictably, numerous violations were found, running from useless life jackets to rotted fire hoses.
The five-man committee recommended many reforms including: fireproof metal bulkheads to contain fires, steam pipes extended from the boiler into cargo areas (to act as a sprinkler), improved life jackets (one for each passenger and crew member), fire hoses capable of handling 100 pounds of pressure per square inch, and accessible life boats. All these reforms were instituted, which dramatically improved steamboat safety.
The General Slocum fire all but erased the German population from the lower east side of Manhattan. Soon after the tragedy, hundreds of families moved from the lower east side because memories of the tragedy were too horrible to bear. Some settled on the upper east side of Manhattan’s Yorkville section, creating a new Germantown. Some moved to Astoria in Queens, and others left New York City completely.
Strangle, the memory of General Slocum fire, even though it killed almost 10 times as many people as did the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, quickly faded from the general public’s consciousness. A large part of the reason was that the onset of World War One removed all sympathies for anyone of German descent, and all of the victims of the General Slocum fire were German.
In 1905, the Sympathy Society of German Ladies commissioned sculptor Bruno Louis Zimm to design a memorial fountain, which was unveiled on May 30, 1905 at the northwestern corner of Tompkins Square Park. This white 9-foot fountain is sculpted of pink Tennessee marble. On the front, above the carved lion’s head spout and basin, a there is a depiction of two innocent children staring off towards the sea, with the inscription, “They were earth’s purest children, loving and fair.”
This memorial fountain still stands in Tompkins Square Park to this very day.