originally published May 1, 2012

Today we’re setting sail (without actually using a sail) on the General Slocum. Some may read that and think, “Hey, isn’t that the name of that military-themed adult film that I watched last weekend?” Others are probably saying, “What a dick. He just made a porno joke out of a huge tragedy.”

The General Slocum is not merely a sad story, it is a sad and weird story. How could a slow-moving excursion steamer that routinely cruised the East River in New York City somehow lead to the worst disaster in the city’s history up to 9/11?

Launched in 1891, the General Slocum was a big hulking three-deck steamer, powered by two boilers, a single-cylinder steam engine, with two giant paddlewheels churning the water. Devine Burtis Jr., the ship’s builder, named her after Civil War General Henry Warner Slocum, who also held office in Congress and was at least partly responsible for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

This boat did not have a great life story. She ran into sandbars or ran aground numerous times in her short life, including three times in the summer of 1894. Maybe it was due to crappy captainship, maybe it was just dumb luck. In July of 1898, while transporting a group of 900 drunk anarchists, she collided with the Amelia just off Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan. The crew had to battle passengers to keep control of the vessel.

A helpful tip if you cater to conventions or large groups of people: if a bunch of guys calling themselves Paterson Anarchists want to throw a party in your establishment, it’s probably best to pass, or at least to collect double the usual deposit.

The disaster that would come to define the General Slocum occurred on June 15, 1904. While some days the ship would cater to tourists looking to see Manhattan’s skyline from the water, today she was catering to a group of over 1400 Germans, mostly women and children. These folks, most of whom hailed from “Little Germany” on the lower east side, had been making a voyage like this every year for the past seventeen years. It was a community tradition.

Cue the ominous music.

The plan was to sail from downtown up the East River, hang a right and cruise across Long Island Sound to a picnic site called Locust Grove. They set off at 9:30am. By around 10:00, as they were cruising past 90th Street, a fire broke out in the lamp room. It might have been a cigarette, maybe a match, but the lamp room was filled with dry straw, oily rags and lamp oil. It’s almost like the room was built specifically to combust.

A 12-year-old boy ran to Captain William H. Van Schaick and told him about the fire, but the Captain didn’t believe him. Ten minutes later (ten minutes!) he was made aware that the fire was real.

No problem, a ship like this has equipment for this kind of thing, right? Sure, except the fire hoses had rotted, and were completely useless.

Alright, the East River isn’t that wide, surely Captain Van Schaick could just steer them toward either Queens or the Bronx. But he didn’t. He would later claim that he didn’t want to spread the fire to riverside buildings or oil tanks. So he just kept cruising up the middle of the river, right into the headwinds that were effectively fanning the flames.

It’s a boat on a river, with civilization on either side, but Van Schaick was determined to keep the boat moving forward. Seriously.

The crew had never even had a fire drill. They had no idea what they were doing. When the hoses failed, they tried to pile everyone into lifeboats. But the lifeboats were tied up, wired and even painted in place. They were completely inaccessible.

The life preservers would work, right? No, some of them crumbled when grabbed off the wall. They hadn’t been inspected since ever, and they’d been exposed to New York’s weather for probably thirteen years, since the boat was launched. Not only that, but the life preserver company was corrupt – rumor has it they were filling their preservers with iron bars to bring them up to weight requirements, then stuffing them with cheap cork filler. Women were tucking their kids into life preservers, throwing them overboard and watching the kids sink.

So you’ve got a boat with no safety equipment that works, and a captain steering in the only non-land direction possible without going backwards. The passengers’ last hope was to swim, but back in the early 1900’s, not a lot of people knew how to do that. Not only that, but you’ve seen what women used to wear in 1904 – all that heavy cotton just dragged people below the surface.

Can this get any worse? Well, short of Mothra showing up, not really.

Almost everyone on board was either killed by drowning, by getting thwacked in the head by the rotating paddlewheels, or when the floors of the ships finally collapsed. In the end, it’s estimated that 1021 people had died. 321 lived, including the captain, who ditched the boat and escaped with loss of sight in one eye.

Eight people were indicted after this fiasco, but only Captain Van Schaick was convicted. He served less than seven years in prison for criminal negligence, failing to maintain proper fire drills and adequate fire extinguishers. Despite the evidence that they had falsified safety inspection records, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company escaped with having to pay only a small fine.

Little Germany, the neighborhood from which most of these people hailed, disintegrated. German immigrants moved elsewhere, mostly to the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan, and the neighborhood became absorbed into the city. The Evangelical Lutheran church that had chartered the General Slocum was converted to a synagogue in 1940 (there’s a strange irony there, but I’m not getting into it).

No single event would claim as much loss of life in this city for another 97 years. In 2004, the last living survivor of the disaster passed away; she was 100, and had been six months old when the ship sank.

If they ever make a proper biopic of this story – and there have been a few minor attempts to relay the story on film – it’s not going to be easy. On the one hand, the succession of bonehead errors, from the Captain’s actions to the ship itself, are taken right out of a Buster Keaton comedy. But there’s nothing comical in all this moronitude leading to over a thousand people dying in plain view of the helpless observers on the shore. The film would have to focus on the heroism of the people who formed human chains and waded deep into the river to retrieve as many passengers as possible.

New Yorkers tend to come through with the goods when it counts, don’t they?

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