On June 15, 1904 the General Slocum excursion steamer caught fire in Manhattan’s East River. On board were 1,331 people, most of them German immigrants who were headed for a Sunday school picnic on Long Island. 1,021 died, many of them women and children who drowned or burned to death. The General Slocum disaster was the worst loss of life in New York City until the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
There are two monuments to the doomed passengers: one at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, where many of the victims were buried. In September 1906, a smaller moment was erected in Tompkins Square Park, the neighborhood where many of the passengers lived. It was called “Little Germany” at the time.
This monument, the Slocum Memorial Fountain, is a nine-foot stele of pink marble, with a spout in the shape of a lion’s head. It was dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. In the stone, a boy and girl gaze out to sea. “They were the earth’s purest children young and fair,” the inscription says.
Although the captain was ultimately responsible for the safety of passengers, the owners of the General Slocum, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, made no effort to maintain the boat’s safety equipment. The fire hoses had been allowed to rot, the crew never practiced a fire drill, the lifeboats were tied up and inaccessible. The survivors reported that life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands. Desperate mothers placed life jackets on their children and tossed them in the water, only to watch in horror as the children sank instead of floated.
The subsequent trials produced one conviction–Captain William Van Schaick, 62. Frank A. Barnaby, president of the steamship company and the man who allowed the operation of the unsafe vessel, went free, along with other company executives and government inspectors.
I visited the Slocum Memorial in Tompkins Square Park. Even though life goes on around it, standing by the memorial you cannot help feeling the melancholy and the sadness that etched the memorial. As a New Yorker, and a person of German heritage, I wanted the dead to know they are not forgotten.