General Slocum Disaster

The General Slocum worked as a passenger ship, taking people on excursions around New York City.

On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the ship had been chartered for $350 by St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Little Germany district of Manhattan. This was an annual rite for the group, which had made the trip for 17 consecutive years even as German settlers deserted Little Germany for the Upper East and West Sides. Over 1,300 passengers, mostly women and children, boarded the Slocum, which was to sail up the East River and then eastward across the Long Island Sound to Locust Grove, a picnic site in Eatons Neck, Long Island.

The ship got underway at 9:30am. As it was passing East 90th Street, a fire started in the Lamp Room in the forward section, possibly caused by a discarded cigarette or match but certainly fueled by the straw, oily rags, and lamp oil strewn around the room. The first notice of a fire was at 10 AM; eyewitnesses claimed the initial blaze began in various locations, including a paint locker filled with flammable liquids and a cabin filled with gasoline. Captain Van Schaick 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.

Although the captain was ultimately responsible for the safety of passengers, no effort had been made to maintain or replace the ship's safety equipment. The fire hoses had been allowed to rot, and fell apart when the crew attempted to put out the fire. Likewise, the crew had never had a fire drill, and the lifeboats were tied up (some claim they were wired and painted in place) and inaccessible. 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 floated. Most of those on board were women and children who, like most Americans of the time, could not swim; even victims who did not don the worthless life preservers found that their heavy wool clothing weighed them down in the water.

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. 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. Managers of the company (Nonpareil Cork Works) were indicted but not convicted. In any event, the life preservers had been manufactured in 1891 and had hung above the deck, unprotected from the elements, for thirteen years.

Captain Van Schaick 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 ship, he actually fanned the fire. Very flammable paint also helped the fire to spread out of control.

Some passengers attempted to jump into the river, but the women's clothing of the day made swimming almost impossible. Many died when the floors of the overloaded boat collapsed; others were mauled by the still-turning paddles as they attempted to escape into the water or over the sides.

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 crew members died. The Captain lost sight in one eye due to the fire. Reports indicate that Van Schaick deserted the Slocum as soon as it ran aground, jumping into a nearby tug, along with several crew. Some say his jacket was hardly rumpled, but other reports stated that he was seriously injured. 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.

A basic outline of the Slocum story for those not familiar: The General Slocum, a wooden sidewheel vessel owned by the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, caught fire while on a chartered excursion of the St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church Sunday School. Rather than immediately put his vessel in to shore on either side of the East River, the captain kept in midstream, and at full speed, for at least five minutes beyond the point where the fire first became uncontrollable. The majority of the passengers could not swim, and those not forced overboard by the flames in mid-river, had to jump, or were thrown, into the water when the ship grounded, bow-on, on North Brother Island and the upper decks began to collapse. Medical staff and patients from the hospital on North Brother Island, and a flotilla of small boats and tugs, worked fast to save the drowning, but within a quarter of an hour of the grounding there was no one left to save. Later in the afternoon, the charred hulk of the Slocum drifted free of the beach and sank on the Bronx side of the river, in the direction of Throgs Neck.