MARITIME INDUSTRY MUSEUM EVENTS: GENERAL SLOCUM STEAMBOAT DISASTER CENTENNIAL, JUNE 15, 2004
In June of 2004 a committee from the museum will run a weekend of
events to celebrate the memory of the Slocum disaster. On Saturday, June 12th
thereíll be a boat trip with a continental breakfast that will trace the ill fated voyage
of the SLOCUM on the East River for a meeting with a flotilla of harbor craft for
a water borne wreath laying off North Brother Island, where the steamer burned.
The boat (A Circle Liner) will set sail at 9 A.M. from South Street Seaport Museum. Tickets are $35- per person.
trip will be followed by a luncheon with speakers on the disaster in downtown Manhattan. On
Sunday, June 13th there will be the unveiling of a plaque in memory of
the Slocum on the former St. Markís church followed by a procession to the annual service
at the Slocum Fountain in Tompkins Square Park.
All who sail on the inland waters of the United States over the past hundred years owe a debt
of gratitude to the SLOCUM victims from the resulting changes in the laws for vessel safety.
There are few people that are not aware of the sinking of the TITANTICin 1912, mostly because of the many books, films and a Broadway stage show. Unfortunately, too few people, even in New York City, have ever heard of the burning of the excursion steamer GENERAL SLOCUM that burned and sank within sight of land with the loss of some 1,200 lives in New York Harbor on June 15, 1904. While the TITANIC was a great trans-Atlantic ocean liner carrying the rich and famous, the SLOCUM was a wooden hull, side wheel excursion boat, carrying the poor from the lower East side of Manhattan trying to escape the summer heat on a sail to a picnic.
The GENERAL SLOCUMwas chartered by the Reverend George F. Haas, Pastor of St. Markís Evangelical Lutheran Church, 325 East 6th Street Manhattan, for $350.from the Knickerbocker Steamboat Co. for the 17th Annual Sunday school picnic. The Church was located in the East Side of Manhattan, now known as the East Village, but then called "Klein Deutchland," (Little Germany) because most of the population were German immigrants. The building, now over a 100 years old, is still there and used as a synagogue.
The boat was to take some 1,331 passengers, the exact number was never confirmed, from the East 3rd Street Recreation Pier, sailing up the East River to a picnic grounds on Long Islandís North Shore. Most of the passengers and dead, because it was Wednesday and fathers had to work, were woman and children.
The steamer caught fire just before starting to make the infamous Hell Gate passage in the East River. The captain, William Van Schaick, fearing the currents, whirlpools and rocks of Hell Gate, pushed the burning boat on at full speed to beach her on the beach at North Brother Island in the Bronx. The disaster took 1,200 lives, most dying within sight of the Bronx. Until the terrorists attack on the World Trade Center Towers of September 11, 2001, the Slocum disaster was the largest fire fatality in New York City history and is still the worst inland waters peacetime disaster in the nationís history.
Five weeks before the fire on the excursion boat, officials from the US Steamboat Inspection Service checked the boat and declared the GENERALSLOCUMsafe to carry passengers on the rivers, bays and inland waters for another season. An investigation after the tragedy found that life boats were wired and glued to the deck with layers of paint, life jackets cork fell into dust with age, drowning victims wearing them, fire hose broke under water pressure. The captainís crew testified they never received any training or had a fire drill.
Knickbocker Company officials were tried but never
convicted. Captain Van Schaick, whom many felt became the scapegoat, went to prison, but
later received a presidential pardon, All the harbor excursion boats operating in the port
in 1904 were inspected and many found violations similar to those on the SLOCUM.
There was a complete shake up of the US Steamboat Inspection Service, the functions which
today are carried out by the US Coast Guard since 1942.
The Maritime Industry Museum, founded in 1986 and located on the campus of the SUNY-Maritime College
campus at Fort Schuyler, NY, has had as one of its prime missions promoting the remembrance
of the Slocum disaster. The museum has a permanent exhibit on the Slocum which includes the
only known model of the steamer, a collection of vintage and contemporary photos, books
from 2004 and other memorabilia. The museum has held seminars on the disaster, water
borne memorials, and an annual service at the Slocum Fountain in Manhattan.
On Tuesday, June 15, 2004, the History Channel will air a documentary on the Slocum disaster.