Today is the 111th anniversary of the fire onboard the ferry General Slocum on New York City’s East River. It was New York’s worst disaster before 9/11; over a thousand people died, mostly women and children; and the terrible loss of life was brought about by abysmal safety standards in the name of greed – and yet, unbelievably, it is largely forgotten today.
The General Slocum, a 1,284-ton paddlesteamer launched in 1891, was a popular ferry used for excursions around the New York City area. On 15th June 1904, it had been chartered by the St Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was based in a neighbourhood on the Lower East Side known as Little Germany due to largely being populated by German immigrants. The church would organise an excursion for the parish every year; this one was going to be a day trip up the river to a picnic ground on Long Island. Of the 1,331 passengers who boarded the Slocum for the trip, most were women and children, as it was a Wednesday and most of the men of the parish would be working. It was a lovely sunny day, and as the Slocum began its journey at 9:30am, the mood onboard was extremely cheerful.
It was around 10am when the horror began. When a deckhand opened the door to the Slocum‘s lamp room, the rush of oxygen caused a smouldering spark on the floor to ignite into a fire, which began spreading through the dry hay on the floor. In just a few minutes, it was spreading upwards through the bow, fuelled by the Slocum‘s wooden structure and the blowing wind as it steamed forward.
The crowds of passengers began to panic – and it was at this point that they discovered how ill-equipped the Slocum was to ensure their survival in an emergency. The hundreds of life preservers onboard had not been replaced since the Slocum first entered service; many of them fell apart when people grabbed at them, and even those that didn’t were worse than useless, as the cork had disintegrated into dust. Anyone who jumped into the river wearing these would actually be more likely to sink, as they would absorb water. The fire hose was also old and neglected: when wielded by the crew in a short-lived attempt to fight the fire, it burst. The lifeboats were totally useless: they had been wired up to stop them knocking about in windy weather, and could not be freed. The ship’s owners had simply wanted to save money, aided by corrupt, lacklustre safety inspections – and now the Slocum‘s passengers were going to pay the price.
Rather than try and dock immediately – for fear of spreading the fire – the Slocum‘s Captain Van Schaick aimed to run the ferry aground in the shallow waters around North Brother Island, about a mile ahead. So the Slocum continued onwards while the fire continued to spread, and everyone onboard fought to escape. Jumping from the deck was hardly any good, as most of the passengers had no experience of swimming. Despite a number of small boats chasing the Slocum and trying to rescue people, scores of them were left drowning, sometimes weighed down by a defective life preserver or sucked into the Slocum‘s paddlewheels.
When the burning General Slocum finally did run aground off North Brother Island, the stern – at the opposite end from where the fire had started – was still in water about thirty feet deep. The continuing rescue effort by bystanders came too late for most. The final death toll was given as 1,021 people, burned, drowned, or trapped on the Slocum as the decks collapsed.
The shattered neighbourhood of Little Germany never recovered, and soon disintegrated as surviving families moved away. New safety regulations for steamboats were implemented following the disaster, but despite the clear negligence on behalf of inspectors and the ferry’s owners, only the captain received a conviction, serving 3.5 years in prison before being paroled. What remained of the General Slocum itself was converted into a barge, which sank for good in 1911.
O’Donnell, Edward (2003), Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum