One hundred and fourteen years ago today, on June 15, 1904, virtually the entire congregation of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark, in the East Village of New York City, put on their best clothes and headed out for a church picnic. This was an annual event that was the highlight of the social year for the church’s parishioners, almost all of whom were German-American immigrants living in the same neighborhood, called Little Germany. This day, however, would prove to be tragic for most of them. They boarded the General Slocum, a 235-foot paddle-wheel excursion steamer, to take them to their picnic ground. Over a thousand of them would not get off the boat alive.
Half an hour after the boat left its Lower East Side dock a 12-year-old cabin boy ran to the captain, reporting a fire had begun in a paint locker. The captain, Von Schaick, didn’t believe him. Then smoke started pouring out of portholes and passengers started smelling smoke and seeing flames. The old steamer, built of wood, was going up very quickly. Although he was very close to the shore, Von Schaick decided to maintain the ship’s course–he later said he was afraid of spreading the fire to shore. This was a terrible decision. Continuing full speed ahead simply fanned the flames and made them spread faster.
In minutes the General Slocum was a blazing funeral pyre. The lifeboats were useless: the crew had never drilled with them and some were even stuck in place by layers of paint over their pulleys. What few fire hoses there were had rotted away to nothing, and sprang leaks as soon as crew members tried to use them. Worst of all were the life preservers. Shoddily manufactured by a crooked contractor 13 years before, the ancient preservers were stuffed with inferior cork dust and weighted down with pieces of lead to bring them up to the regulation weight. Panicked passengers strapped life preservers onto their children and threw them into the water–only to see them pulled to the bottom of the East River by the lead weights. Almost no one aboard could swim; swimming for pleasure was not common in the early 1900s, and the heavy woolen clothes and leather shoes worn by most of the passengers made it impossible anyway. The General Slocum finally fell apart and sank off North Brother Island in the Bronx, putting out the fire, more or less, but 1,021 people were dead. The bodies washed up on shorelines all over the New York area for days.
Many of the bodies of the 1,021 victims of the General Slocum fire were found on New York City shorelines after the tragedy. Many were buried in Brooklyn.
The horror of the General Slocum disaster was not only that it was caused by gross negligence and dishonesty, although it was. This one event also had the effect of wiping the neighborhood of Little Germany off the map of New York City. With over 1,000 of its residents dead and the church that was the neighborhood’s lifeblood struck by this irreparable tragedy, Little Germany, which was already in decline before the disaster, quickly ceased to exist. German-Americans, disillusioned by the disaster, began to move out to other parts of the city, and other ethnic groups, particularly Jews, began to move in. In fact, what was the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark is today a Jewish synagogue. The neighborhood that was Little Germany is as vibrant as it ever was today, but its German character is largely gone, and was largely decimated on this one single day.
June 15, 1904 was one of the blackest days in the history of New York City. It was the largest one-day loss of life in the city’s history until the terrible events of September 11, 2001. The General Slocum itself was salvaged and turned into a barge, which again sank seven years later. The final survivor of the disaster, Adella Wotherspoon, died at the age of 100 in 2004.
The General Slocum disaster, incidentally, is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place the following day, June 16, 1904.