The General Slocum Disaster

Originally published in Harper's June 24, 1904. Caption reads "A view of the General Slocum on fire off North Brother Island."
Originally published in Harper's June 24, 1904. Caption reads "A view of the General Slocum on fire off North Brother Island." Via Wikimedia Commons.

The General Slocum had been chartered for a picnic by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York City.  The 1,358 passengers, mostly women and children, were from that area, then known as “Little Germany.” The excursion had been an annual event for some years.

After the fire was discovered in the forward section of the ship, Captain William H. Van Schaick, aiming at beaching the ship, pushed it full speed into the wind, eventually into North Brother Island, as fire engulfed the vessel from the front to the rear. The crew attempted to use the ship’s fire hoses to extinguish the fire, only to have it burst under pressure. The life preservers onboard turned out to rotten and useless. All told, 1,021 passengers perished in the disaster.

In the June 25, 1904, issue, Fire and Water Engineering urges several steps to take to improve shipboard fire safety, concerning ship construction and design, onboard firefighting equipment, life preserver access, and placing vessel fire safety inspection under the jurisdiction of the chief of the fire department.  Letters from “A Mere Fireman,” and “A Concerned New Yorker” echoed this recommendation. Even to the most “prejudiced” observer, the magazine declared, “responsibility for the whole disaster lies at the door of the Federal authorities” who were responsible for inspecting the ship and its fire safety provisions.

However, the editor was pessimistic about a promised investigation, especially with a presidential election coming up that year. He anticipated “abundant use of the whitewashing brush, the censuring, perhaps, the dismissal of some subordinate official, and the possible prosecution of the unfortunate captain of the vessel. For some yellow dog must be killed to satisfy the public.”

The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company (owner of the General Slocum) ledger erasures, deficient life preservers and fire hose, lack of crew fire drills, and superficial ship safety inspections are topics in “The Slocum Inquest” article in the same issue. See all these articles HERE.

In its July 2, 1904, Fire and Water Engineering recommends that, given the failure of Federal inspections to ensure safety on boats, New York City should have the authority to inspect vessels operating in its waters. It also rejects the excuse that because the General Slocum tragedy occurred on water, not on land, where fire safety is better regulated. In the same issue, “The Slocum Inquest” continues with a discussion of the training and actions of the crew and the fire’s origin, among other topics. See these articles HERE.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a commission to look into the causes of the disaster and the Federal steamship inspection system in New York City. The October 22, 1904 issue of Fire and Water Engineering offers its comment and a summary of the commission’s findings HERE.

Finally, in the January 27, 1906 issue HERE, the journal notes that although Captain Van Schaick is on trial for his role in the disaster, “Nothing [he] has been accused of . . . proves him to be more guilty or less responsible than the owners of the boat and those Federal officials charged with the task of her inspection and of seeing that . . .her crew was  . . . well drilled  to meet whatever emergencies might arise….” Van Schaick was convicted of criminal negligence and sent to prison. President William Howard Taft pardoned him in December 1912; the captain died in 1927.

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