Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum
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There were few experienced swimmers among over 1,300 Lower East Side residents who boarded the General Slocum on June 15, 1904. It shouldn’t have mattered since the steamship was only chartered for a languid excursion from Manhattan to Long Island Sound. But a fire erupted minutes into the trip, forcing hundreds of terrified passengers into the water. By the time the captain found a safe shore for landing, 1,021 had perished. It was New York’s deadliest tragedy prior to September 11, 2001.
The only book available on this compelling chapter in the city’s history, Ship Ablaze draws on firsthand accounts to examine why the death toll was so high, how the city responded, and why this event failed to achieve the infamy of the Titanic’s 1912 demise or the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Masterfully capturing both the horror of the event and heroism of men, women, and children who faced crumbling life jackets and inaccessible lifeboats as the inferno quickly spread, historian Edward T. O’Donnell spotlights an important incident with which most Americans are unfamiliar. Enhanced by moving photographs, Ship Ablaze brings to life a bygone community while honoring the victims of that forgotten day.
Manhattan’s Lower East Side that came to be called Little Germany, or what the residents themselves called Kleindeutschland. By 1860 this neighborhood, comprised of the city’s tenth, eleventh, thirteenth, and seventeenth wards, was home to half of the city’s 120,000 Germans. Like most immigrants, these Germans arrived with lots of ambition but little money. Thus Little Germany became not simply an ethnic enclave, but also a crowded slum with all its related problems. Tenements had no running
the Slocum’s upper deck, Lundberg again displayed the skill of a USSIS veteran. There he found the steamer’s six lifeboats in an utterly unusable state. By all appearances they’d never been moved since the Slocum was launched thirteen years earlier. Thick layers of paint had literally glued the boats to their V-shaped chocks on the deck, while wire had been wound through the pulleys on the overhanging davits that were used to launch them in an emergency. No expert eye was needed to see that these
while Barnaby refused to buy new life preservers and fire hoses and install steam pipes in the hold, Van Schaick refused to conduct fire drills or tests of the equipment. Barnaby saved his precious pennies, Van Schaick his self-respect and pride. Van Schaick’s self-assuredness regarding the safety of his steamboat was no doubt strengthened by the fact that accidents involving steamboats—other steamboats—happened all the time. Indeed, as if to underscore this perception, later that evening an
their minds.” Panic quickly reached the demoralization stage and packs of fear-crazed passengers raced from one side of the steamer to find loved ones and refuge. Seeking order and safety, they created chaos and hazard. And as Kate Kassenbaum and others in the minority who remained levelheaded discovered, they were at the mercy of the panicked majority. Kassenbaum had kept her cool when the panic started and managed to gather her family of ten along a railing. Hang on for as long as possible, she
question, given the enormity of the tragedy and the fact that recovery operations were ongoing to find some five hundred missing passengers. After a shorter than usual sleep, he rose, dressed, and walked to city hall in a drizzle, his mind fixed on the troubling matters that awaited his attention. Even if he had wanted to think of something else, it would have been impossible, for on every corner, newsies called out the morning headlines. “499 Known To Be Dead!” (Herald) “Horror in East River!”