PS General Slocum

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Name: General Slocum
Namesake: Henry Warner Slocum
Owner: Knickerbocker Steamship Company
Port of registry:  United States
Ordered: February 15, 1891
Builder: Divine Burtis, Jr. of Brooklyn, New York
Launched: April 18, 1891
Fate: Caught fire and burned to the waterline in New York's East River on June 15, 1904.
General characteristics
Class and type: Sidewheeler passenger ship
Displacement: 1,200 tons
Length: 235 feet (72 m)
Beam: 37.5 feet (11.4 m)
Depth: 12.3 feet (3.7 m)
Decks: three decks
Installed power: three engines built by W. & A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey
Propulsion: Sidewheel boat each wheel had 26 paddles and was 31 feet (9.4 m) in diameter.
Speed: 16 knots (30 km/h)
Crew: 22

The PS General Slocum was a sidewheel steam passenger ship, also known as a paddle steamer, built at Brooklyn, New York in 1891. The General Slocum was named for Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. She operated in the New York City area as an excursion ship for the next thirteen years under the same ownership. During her service history she was involved in a number of mishaps, including multiple groundings and collisions.

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum caught fire and burned to the waterline in New York's East River.[1] At the time of the accident she was on a chartered run carrying members of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church (German Americans from Little Germany, Manhattan) to a church picnic. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board were killed. The General Slocum disaster was the New York area's worst disaster in terms of loss of life until the September 11, 2001 attacks.[2] The events surrounding the General Slocum fire have appeared in a number of books, plays and movies through the years.


The General Slocum was built by Divine Burtis, Jr., a Brooklyn boatbuilder who was awarded the contract on February 15, 1891.[3] Her keel was 235 feet (72 m) long and the hull was 37.5 feet (11.4 m) wide constructed of white oak and yellow pine. The Slocum displaced about 1,200 tons with a hull depth of 12.3 feet (3.7 m).[3] The Slocum was constructed with three decks, three watertight compartments and 250 electric lights.[3]

She was powered by three engines that were built by W. & A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey. The Slocum was a sidewheel boat. Each wheel had 26 paddles and was 31 feet (9.4 m) in diameter. Its maximum speed was about 16 knots (30 km/h). The ship was usually manned by a crew of 22, including Captain William H. Van Schaick and two pilots. The ship was named for Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum.

Ship history

File:General Slocum (Stanton profile drawing).jpg
drawing of General Slocum by Samuel Ward Stanton

The General Slocum experienced a series of mishaps following her launch in 1891. Four months after her launching, she ran aground off Rockaway. Tugboats had to be used to pull her free.

A number of incidents occurred during 1894. On July 29, while returning from Rockaway with approximately 4,700 passengers, the Slocum struck a sandbar with enough force that her electrical generator went out. The next month, the Slocum again ran aground off Coney Island during a storm. During this grounding the passengers had to be transferred to another ship. In September 1894 the Slocum collided with the tug R. T. Sayre in the East River with the General Slocum sustaining substantial damage to her steering.

In July 1898 another collision occurred when the Slocum collided with the Amelia near Battery Park. On August 17, 1901, while was carrying what was described as 900 intoxicated Paterson Anarchists, some of the passengers started a riot on board and attempted to take control of the vessel. However, the crew fought back and maintained control of the ship. The captain docked the ship at the police pier and 17 men were taken into custody by the police. In June 1902 the General Slocum ran aground with 400 passengers aboard. Unable to free the vessel, the passengers had to camp out while the ship remained stuck throughout the night.

The disaster

File:General slocum burning.jpg
Firefighters working to extinguish the General Slocum

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[4] 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.[5] 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)[6] 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.[6]

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.[7]

File:GeneralSlocum 05.jpg
Victims of the General Slocum washed ashore at North Brother Island

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. Inflammable 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.[8]

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.


File:GeneralSlocum 06.jpg
Carrying away a body from North Brother Island

Seven people were indicted by a Federal grand jury after the disaster: the Captain; two inspectors; and the president, secretary, treasurer and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted. He was found guilty on one of three charges: criminal negligence, failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other two counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He spent three years and six months at Sing Sing prison before he was paroled. President Theodore Roosevelt declined to pardon Captain Van Schaick, and he was not released until the federal parole board, under the William Howard Taft administration, voted to free him on August 26, 1911.[9] He was pardoned by President Taft on December 19, 1912,[10] and died in 1927.[11]

The Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the ship, paid a relatively small fine despite evidence they may have falsified inspection records. The remains of the General Slocum were recovered and converted into a barge which sank in a storm during 1911.

The disaster motivated federal and state regulation to improve the emergency equipment on passenger ships.

The neighborhood of Little Germany, which had been in decline for some time before the disaster,[12] almost disappeared afterwards. With the trauma and arguments that followed the tragedy and the loss of many prominent settlers, most of the Lutheran Germans remaining in the Lower East Side eventually moved uptown. The church whose congregation chartered the ship for the fateful voyage is now a synagogue.

The victims were interred in cemeteries around New York, with fifty-eight identified victims buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.[13]


On January 26, 2004 the last surviving passenger from the General Slocum, Adella Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), died at the age of 100. At the time of the disaster she was a six-month old child. Mrs. Wotherspoon was the youngest survivor of the tragedy that took the lives of her two older sisters. When she was one year old she unveiled the Steamboat Fire Mass Memorial on June 15, 1905, at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery, in Middle Village, Queens.[14] Prior to Mrs. Wotherspoon's passing the previous oldest surviving member was Catherine Connelly (née Uhlmyer) (1893–2002) who was eleven years old at the time of the accident.

In popular culture

File:General Slocum Memorial.JPG
The General Slocum disaster memorial in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City. Tompkins Square Park is in the heart of Alphabet City, what was once Little Germany.


  • There is a reference to the disaster in James Joyce's Ulysses, the events of which take place on the following day (June 16, 1904).
  • The General Slocum disaster is at the center of the novel The Unresolved, by T.K. Welsh.
  • The disaster is also mentioned in Kevin Baker's novel Dreamland.
  • The story of the General Slocum was described as an "Avoidable Catastrophe" in Bob Fenster's book, Duh! The Stupid History of the Human Race, in Part One, which discusses stories involving stupidity.
  • The 2005 Hugo award nominated novella Time Ablaze by Michael A. Burstein (Analog, June 2004) concerns a time traveler who comes to record the disaster. The story was published to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
  • The General Slocum disaster plays a prominent role in Richard Crabbe's novel Hell's Gate
  • The disaster is mentioned in the novel Forever by Pete Hamill
  • The disaster is mentioned in the novel It's Superman! by Tom De Haven.
  • The disaster plays a prominent role in the novel In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff.
  • The General Slocum tragedy is described in detail in Glenn Stout's 2009 biography of Gertrude Ederle, "Young Woman and the Sea." Stout uses the incident, in which many women and young children drowned, to help explain the history of how women, including Ederle, were afforded opportunities to learn to swim during the early part of the century.

Film, television, etc.

  • The General Slocum disaster was featured in the documentary My Father's Gun.
  • The first scenes of the film Manhattan Melodrama recreate the disaster; however, the movie implies that there were Jews among the passengers.
  • The story is told from the imagined point of view of survivor Adella Wotherspoon in a song recorded by the Brooklyn-based history band Pinataland.
  • German Television produced and showed an hour long documentary "The Slocum is on Fire!" by Christian Baudissin in 1998 about the disaster and its impact on the German community of New York.
  • A description of the disaster and the following events in relation to September 11 is given in Act II by David Rakoff in Episode 194: Before and After [15] of the radio program This American Life.
  • The American avante garde composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) wrote a tone poem "The General Slocum" , a musical portrait of the disaster.

See also


  1. "The General Slocum An Unlucky Craft. Has Had Collisions And Accidents By The Score. Has Run Ashore Many Times. She Was a Crack Harbor Boat Thirteen Years Ago. Capt. Van Schaick's Good Record". New York Times. June 16, 1904. Retrieved 2010-02-28. "The General Slocum was one of the best known vessels about New York Harbor. Since the time of her launching, in 1891, she has been employed in so many different capacities, and on so many different runs, that possibly five out of every ten people in New York City have at some time been aboard of her, or have seen her at close range." 
  2. Kleinfeld, N. R. (2007-09-02). "A Debate Rises: How Much 9/11 Tribute Is Enough?". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-13. "Few are alive anymore who can recall June 15, 1904, when 1,021 people died in the burning of the steamer General Slocum, the deadliest New York disaster until Sept. 11, 2001." 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Ogilvie, J.S.. "History of the General Slocum Disaster:". Retrieved 13 December 2009. 
  4. O'Donnell, Edward (2003). "Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat "General Slocum". New York: Broadway Books. pp. 97–98. ISBN 0767909054. 
  5. O'Donnell, pp.98-102.
  6. 6.0 6.1 O'Donnell, pp. 108-113.
  7. O'Donnell, pp. 118-119.
  8. Gentile, "Shipwrecks of New Jersey", 2001
  9. Eric Robinson, New-York Historical Society Library
  10. "Van Schaick Pardoned. Captain of the Ill-Fated Slocum Is Restored to Full Citizenship.". New York Times. 1912-12-20. Retrieved 2009-04-13. "President Taft to-day granted a pardon to Capt. William H. Van Schaick, who commanded the steamboat General Slocum, destroyed by fire in the East River in 1904, with the loss of 1,030 lives, most of whom were women and children. The pardon becomes effective on Christmas day." 
  12. O'Donnell, pp. 26-34
  14. "Thousands Sob as Baby Unveils Slocum Statue". New York Times. June 16, 1905. Retrieved 2007-06-26. "Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I." 
  15. "Episode 194: Before and After". Chicago, Illinois: This American Life. 

Further reading

  • Jay Nash, Darkest Hours. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. ISBN 0882291408
  • Werner Braatz and Joseph Starr, Fire on the River: The Story of the Burning of the General Slocum. Krokodiloplis Press, 2000. ISBN 0974936308
  • Ed O'Donnell, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum. Broadway, 2003. ISBN 0767909054

External links

da:General Slocum de:General Slocum fr:General Slocum it:General Slocum nl:General Slocum ja:ジェネラル・スローカム no:«General Slocum» fi:General Slocum sv:S/S General Slocum