Among the many immigrant populations who lived in the cramped and often squalid conditions of New York’s Lower East Side the German community of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) was one of the proudest and most distinctive. It was a tight-knit community, centered around important cultural markers such as St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. On June 15 1904, 1358 members of the congregation – women and children in the main – set off on the church’s annual picnic trip which this year was to be held on the North Shore of Long Island. They had chartered the SS General Slocum to take them there, a side-wheeler steam ferry which was a common sight in the waters of New York harbor. Having boarded at 3rd Street, the day-trippers were soon heading up the East River towards Long Island Sound.
As the General Slocum was passing through the narrow tidal strait known as Hell Gate (where the Triborough Bridge stands today), a fire broke out; spreading quickly, it caused panic on the crowded decks. Hoping to contain the fire, the captain maintained his course towards the sound but the stiff headwind simply fanned the flames further. He was able eventually to beach the ship on North Brother Island, the site of a hospital for infectious diseases. By this time there was complete pandemonium among the passengers, with hundreds leaping into the water to escape the flames. The ship’s safety measures failed utterly; life-jackets were defective, the life-boats could not be accessed and the crew were inadequately trained.
Although there were many tales of remarkable escapes and of great courage and resourcefulness on the part of the rescuers, the tragedy of the General Slocum remained New York’s worst civilian accident until the events of September 11 2001.
When was the General Slocum Ferry Disaster: June 15 1904
Where was the General Slocum Ferry Disaster: East River, New York, USA
What was the General Slocum Ferry Disaster death toll: 1,021
You should know: The disaster gets a mention in James Joyce’s celebrated novel Ulysses which is set entirely on the following day, June 16 1904 (now known as Bloomsday after the main character).