The General Slocum Disaster

Remembering a tragedy: The steamboat General Slocum.

Generalslocum Cover
“Ship Ablaze” cover illustration. Courtesy of The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

When the twin-paddlewheel steamboat General Slocum departed Manhattan for Long Island Sound on the morning of Wednesday June 15, 1904, the 1,300-plus passengers on board expected nothing more than a relaxing day trip. The itinerary called for a short ride up the East River to Long Island's Locust Grove, where the travelers would eat, drink and play to their heart's content before being ferried back home. It's safe to say that swimming was not one of the planned activities, as the mini-cruise called for participants to wear their Sunday best, and few early 20th century New Yorkers knew how to swim, anyway. But just minutes into the excursion a fire started below deck, and before long flames engulfed the boat, forcing the passengers into the water.

In the book, “Ship Ablaze” (Broadway), historian Edward O'Donnell recounts the General Slocum story, a tragedy that took the lives of 1,021 people—mostly women and children. Initially, the fire and subsequent horrors were viewed as a simple, albeit catastrophic, accident. But when survivors reported the alarming disrepair of the boat's safety equipment, it became evident that corporate greed, corruption and negligence were to blame for the casualties. Within a week, grand jury hearings were underway to determine culpability, but the victims' families would get no satisfaction. The decisions and actions that led to the second-deadliest incident in New York's history went almost entirely unpunished.

General Purpose

When put into service in 1891 the General Slocum was one of the largest and most luxurious steamboats in and around New York. Named after Major General Henry Warner Slocum (1827-94) she was 264 feet long, weighed 1,300 tons and could carry 2,500 passengers. By the turn of the century, however, newer steamers had surpassed the General Slocum in terms of speed, size and comfort, and it came to be regarded as a second-class boat. As such, the middle- and working-class members of St. Mark's Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side were able to charter her for their annual church outing at a cost of $350.

When the ship began its fateful journey at the East Third St. pier, the passengers had no reason to be concerned about safety. After all, the General Slocum had recently passed its annual inspection (conducted by the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service, a.k.a. USSIS) and Captain William Van Schaick had never lost a passenger during his distinguished 50-year career. Notes O'Donnell: "The company's safety record was probably no worse than any other [steamboat operator] although they had many citations for overcrowding. They were being cited for that more than anything else.” 

Shortly after pulling away from the pier a fire was discovered in the ship's lamp room—a utility room where the crew stored equipment and supplies. The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, but a careless member of the crew was likely responsible. "Somebody, either in the striking of a match or the extinguishing of a match sent a spark that ignited the hay on the floor. It burned very slowly until somebody noticed the smoke once the ship was underway,” relates O'Donnell.

Fight or Flight? 

After the initial discovery the fire might still have been contained, but John Coakley—the first deckhand on the scene—apparently had little knowledge of fire safety. On the job for a mere 17 days he was enjoying his first beer of the morning when a little boy told him of smoke in a stairwell. Coakley's first mistake was yanking open the lamp room door, providing the fire with the oxygen needed to turn smoldering hay into a free burning blaze. His second was leaving the door wide open when he went to get help. "It was the perfect fire in terms of the convergence of several key factors,” notes O'Donnell. "There was the hay on the ground, four vents leading into the room, and with the open door leading out to a three-decker stairwell—which acted like a chimney—the fire spread in just minutes.” 

The crew set out to fight the fire as best they could, and for a brief moment it appeared the blaze might be contained. "The men rushed a fire hose, began to unfold it, attached it to the standpipe, turned it on and got water to flow through it,” says O'Donnell. However, that hose had not been used or tested since the boat was completed in 1891 and was so rotted that it burst when water surged through. "At that point they panicked and fled,” allows O'Donnell. "They actually did try one more hose but didn't have the training that would have indicated their only choice was to stay there and keep fighting the fire.”

On The Waterfront 

Seven minutes after discovery the fire was reported to Captain Van Schaick, who decided on a counterintuitive course of action. Instead of making for shore—which was just hundreds of feet away on either side—he ordered the pilot to make for North Brother Island, a mile and a half up the river. "To the landlubber it looked simple: Go right, go left, get to shore. But the Captain's big fear was that the vessel would get caught on the rocks and everybody would be lost,” says O'Donnell. With a gently sloping landing and a contagious disease hospital on the island Schaick expected that he could get the boat in close—where passengers could wade ashore and receive immediate medical attention. Actually, Schaick ended up fanning the flames. "As every school child knows, what do you do when you catch on fire? Stop, drop and roll. If your boat is on fire don't open up the throttle and go full blast because you'll feed the flames and push them back upon the people who are seeking refuge at the stern.”

Ironically, less than a year earlier, Schaick had received a medal from the Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots for being the safest, most experienced captain—the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. But in this case, his confidence and years of experience may have worked against him. "You can become complacent and arrogant. Your success actually sets you up for failure because you've done something so well for so long—who's going to tell you how to do it any differently?” asks O'Donnell. 

Naturally, the sight of the blazing General Slocum caught the attention of other boats, many of which began following in the Slocum's wake, hoping to rescue passengers. Meanwhile, an office worker in Manhattan phoned an editor for the New York World, providing an eyewitness account of events. "The guy called and said, 'I'm in an office overlooking the East River. There's a steamboat on fire . . . Oh, God! Women and children are leaping over the railing by the dozens . . . This is ghastly, horrible….’” relates O'Donnell. As a result, the World scooped all the other dailies in New York City and within an hour had thousands of Extra! newspapers on the streets with news of the disaster.

Expiration Date

With the fire burning unchecked and fueled with a generous supply of oxygen, passengers began searching for life jackets, which were enclosed above the decks in difficult-to-open wire housings. When passengers finally managed to pull the jackets down, they found them as useful as the fire hoses. "They shredded in their hands because they had been rotting in the racks for 13 years,” begins O'Donnell. "The hard blocks of cork inside them were reduced to fine dust with the buoyancy of dirt. Most people jumped in without them but some people actually put them on, plunged over the side and went straight to the bottom.” 

To make matters worse, when Schaick finally beached the boat at North Brother Island he found he couldn't get in as close as he wanted. "He caught a rock and people on the stern were actually in water that was substantially over their head,” says O'Donnell. For people who didn't know how to swim the water might as well have been a thousand feet deep.

Meanwhile, the trailing boats formed a semicircle around the Slocum and boaters began rescuing passengers in earnest, often putting their own lives at risk. "These are some of the most extraordinary stories—guys who rowed out in 2000 degree heat, catching their mustaches and clothing on fire,” notes O'Donnell. For ten minutes the rescuers worked feverishly before turning to recovery. "They suddenly realized at one point that everything had gone quiet except for the cries of everyone on shore.” 

Damage Control

The first newspaper accounts of the disaster were largely matter-of-fact. "But as soon as survivors began to talk and present a pretty consistent view of what happened the condemnation came . . . the owner of the steamboat was guilty of criminal negligence and greed," says O'Donnell.

Frank Barnaby, owner of the General Slocum and the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company realized he needed to act quickly to limit his liability and forestall legal action. "The first thing he did—which failed—was to falsify company records to show that the Slocum had new life jackets when it didn't,” begins O'Donnell. "Part of that falsification of records strategy was to say, 'First, we have proof that we had new life preservers on the boat, and secondly, the reason the life preservers fell apart is because they [the passengers] were panicking and tore them apart like fools.’ So he was not above blaming the victims for what happened.” 

But before long Barnaby changed tactics and began pointing a finger at the USSIS. "He realized that they had received a clean bill of health from a federally approved inspector and could hide behind that,” states O'Donnell. 

Not surprisingly, inspector Henry Lundberg was widely criticized for doing a shoddy job and ignoring the laws and statues governing the operation of steamboats. "It [the USSIS] was a dysfunctional, corrupt and largely ignored federal agency that allowed what I would describe as place-holders and patronage types to get jobs with no qualifications,” advises O'Donnell. "We don't know if the inspector who looked at the Slocum took a bribe, but he certainly did not, by anybody's later testimony, give it a thorough inspection.”

Pier Pressure

In the immediate aftermath it appeared just a few hundred individuals had perished, but when the tide changed bodies began to surface and the magnitude of the disaster was realized. On North Brother Island, survivors received treatment while corpses were lined up in rows to await identification. 

Ultimately, the death count was so high that the city's morgue was overwhelmed and a nearby pier was turned into a temporary morgue. "Believe it or not, New York City ran out of coffins that day and had to hastily build them at North Brother Island,” says O'Donnell. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere around the pier was charged with tension as relatives came to search for loved ones. "It was very intense, to say the least,” notes O'Donnell. "People tried to commit suicide off the pier once they discovered [the bodies of] their relatives.”

No One Is To Blame? 

In contrast to the tortoise-like pace of today's legal system grand jury hearings began almost immediately. "The fire took place on a Wednesday and that Monday hearings were convened in the Bronx,” notes O'Donnell. Meanwhile, an investigation of the physical evidence also got underway, and divers were commissioned to collect incriminating evidence from the wreck, including unused fire hoses and life jackets. 

Early on, it appeared that those most responsible for the accident would be held accountable. "The grand jury found 11 people guilt of manslaughter,” notes O'Donnell. "At this point, just two weeks after the fire, the victims and their families had at least a tiny particle of consolation. At least somebody was going to be punished for this crime. As it turns out that's exactly not what happens.”

Ultimately, Barnaby's strategy to hide behind the USSIS paid off. "The inspector was tried three times and freed after three consecutive mistrials,” advises O'Donnell. "With his non-conviction there is no case against Knickerbocker Steamboat officials.” Soon afterwards Barnaby would sell off his ships, dissolve the company and emerge virtually unscathed. 

However, as commander of the vessel, Captain Van Schaick was still vulnerable to legal action. "Two years after the fire he is tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years of hard labor at Sing Sing prison in upstate New York,” says O'Donnell. "He called himself a scapegoat and many people believed it, so much so that his wife conducted a relentless letter campaign and got president Taft to pardon him after three years.” Not surprisingly, survivors and relatives of victims were outraged that the only individual being punished for the disaster was freed after serving less than a third of his sentence. 

A Fading Memory

In the end, the General Slocum was salvaged, bought at auction, and converted into a coal barge, sailing for seven more years before sinking off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Meanwhile, the tragedy began to fade from the country's memory, especially after New York's Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. 

However, the outbreak of World War I probably was the single-largest factor in bringing the General Slocum down to second-tier disaster status. Most of the members of St. Mark's Lutheran Church were German immigrants and sympathy for all things German quickly dried up in 1914. "American was engulfed in anti-German sentiment and newspapers stopped covering the annual memorial services until the 1920s,” advises O'Donnell. "By then it's pretty well relegated to the back of the collective historical memory.” 

Of course, for victims and their families the memory was inescapable and they remained traumatized for the rest of their lives. In “Ship Ablaze,” O'Donnell recounts discovering a videotaped interview with survivor Catherine Connelly, who, 93 years later at the age of 104, said, “If I close my eyes, I can still see the whole thing.”