The General Slocum
Remembering a tragedy: The steamboat General Slocum.
Written by Filed under History
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 new 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.
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.