Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fire and water: a remembrance of the General Slocum on June 15, 2010

The General Slocum

It was a story once told mostly among older New Yorkers, or a select few around the globe who were interested in tragedies that occurred on the world’s waterways. There was a fascination about such events in those days before the endless tragedies of numbered wars. Peril on the water strikes fear -- there is usually no safe haven.

On a Wednesday morning in June 1904, an excursion boat (paddle steamer) carrying some thirteen hundred people on a church outing caught fire while sailing up the East River, along the eastern side of Manhattan Island. About midway up the Island, the blaze began and in minutes engulfed the vessel almost totally.

The safety equipment was in a decayed, useless state, the Captain made bad decisions, and more than one thousand passengers were drowned, killed by fire, or crushed in the ensuing conflagration: all within one half hour. The victims were mostly German-American women and children. The ship, virtually submerged, ran aground on North Brother Island at the western end of Long Island Sound, just south of the Bronx.

Yet this is an event that stays virtually ignored by most New Yorkers. Such indifference is difficult to understand, given the terrible toll it took on the city in general and specifically on the German-American neighborhood on the lower East Side. Why?

R.M.S. Titanic has since moved into legend, and R.M.S. Lusitania at least into the literature of war. Most people know The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, by name, if not in detail. September 11 became this generation’s Pearl Harbor. Yet the burning of the General Slocum stays in some backwater of the nation’s and the city’s subconsciousness. Why?

Given the magnitude of the event, the literature is sparse. There were some scattershot books and pamphlets at the time, and a brief reference by James Joyce in Ulysses. Modern times brought two good books. In 1981, Claude Rust’s The Burning of the General Slocum. Then after September 11, Edward T. O’Donnell wrote a good account in his Ship Ablaze, in some way trying to link together two of Manhattan’s deadliest tragedies. Two basic books in more than a century do not a legend make. Only two books. Why?

O’Donnell, in Ship Ablaze, falls back on a Longfellow quote to help explain: “Well it has been said that there is no grief like the grief which does not speak.” He also conjects that a number of factors removed Slocum from the national and metropolitan sensibility: the public’s interest in The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the anti-German sentiment of World War I, and the fact that the victims came from a very concentrated local area.

Manhattan Melodrama

With the advent of the Internet, Slocum information is now more readily available and moves to the forefront every June 15. And film sites and blogs understandably bring up the sequence in Manhattan Melodrama that deals with the Slocum. Otherwise, films have basically steered clear of the Slocum tragedy. So I can add little, except to cite O’Donnell’s reminder that in Manhattan Melodrama the doomed trip up the East River was changed from a German-American outing to an Irish-American outing.

I think many of today’s Manhattan Melodrama audience may not even know of the event, or if they do, consider the Slocum as a story of very long ago. While to the audience that saw Manhattan Melodrama in the Thirties, the burning of the General Slocum would have been only slightly more than a generation earlier. The event was less distant, not only in time but in significance.

My search for St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church

I first heard the story of the General Slocum as a boy, when conversations at family gatherings occasionally turned to tragic events. My grandfathers and grandmothers would have remembered when the Slocum disaster actually happened. But I have little to add to the tale of the General Slocum, except for a miniscule personal byway sometime back in the 1980s when I decided to find the church from which the doomed outing was arranged.

I worked for years on 14th Street and Third Avenue for a major public utility. During my forty years in that area, when time permitted, I wandered around the streets of lower Manhattan looking for New York past. In those days local history came mostly from out of print books and library research.

But those stories I had heard around the kitchen table and the appearance of the Rust book fascinated me. And I was particularly taken with one small illustration. It showed the church I sought. The illustration was a simple little woodcut, with the caption: “St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.” The text stated it was on Sixth Street. If it was still there, it would be easy to find.

I photocopied the picture and went down Second Avenue to Sixth Street and I found the building. The structure had hardly changed in eighty years but the Protestant church was now a Jewish synagogue. (I was unaware that the church had been sold in 1940.)

When I found the building, I was elated. No great challenge was involved in locating it. But it was easy to close my eyes for a moment and to try to hear the shouts of young children and the stern mothers attempting to control them on a June day some eighty years before. This was not only old New York. This was Jack Finney country.

Of course, I had a few persons to tell: an understanding wife, a friend with an interest in New York history, and a few other tolerant listeners. But I found great satisfaction in searching for and finding that rather small edifice. Traversing the streets of New York is always a walk of discovery, made more exhilarating when one knows the history of a site and what has happened there. It becomes one’s companion.

Today, I remembered the moment that I found that building whose congregation had long moved on. And I thought again about the doomed vessel: the General Slocum. She ran aground 106 years ago on another June 15th, in ruins and still aflame -- and no songs were sung that day at Locust Grove, her planned destination.

A note on the illustrations:

The print at the top showing the port side of the General Slocum in profile is from www.wrecksite.eu

The partial painting (in color) is from Walter M. Baumhofer’s Holocaust at Hell Gate, taken from the dust jacket of Rust’s The Burning of the General Slocum. The woodcut of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church is also from the Rust book.


  1. Great story, Gerald! I saw a documentary on the 'Slocum' a good bit back, and it just seemed like so many 'wrong decisions' were made, and sad that some lives could have been saved. And yes, it is amazing that this tragedy is not better documented and referenced. Thanks for the info.


  2. Thank you VKMfan. It was said in “The Naked City” that there are eight million stories in the Naked City (New York). And the Slocum was the saddest story for many more than a thousand of them at that time. Best. Gerald.