Saturday, September 27, 2014

The General Slocum disaster, a German-American disaster

I have attended more than one presentation about the disaster that befell the passenger steamship General Slocum on 15 June 1904.  The story of the loss of the steamboat and more than 1000 of its passengers is one that many of us have encountered.  But how many are aware that the disaster involved primarily the members of  St. Mark German Evangelical Lutheran Church, located at 223 Sixth Ave. in lower Manhattan?  It was one of many German churches to be found at the time in the German section of Manhattan known as Kleindeutschland.

The Slocum had been chartered for $350 by Pastor George C. F. Haas. When it left its Manhattan dock on Third St. at 9 A.M., it carried 1358 passengers plus crew.  Most of the passengers were women and children from St. Mark Church.  Only 10% of the passengers were men. It was bound for a midweek church picnic at Locust Point, on the north shore of Long Island.  Shortly after leaving the dock, fire broke out. By the time Captain William Henry Van Schaick made the first announcement of the fire, passengers were already beginning to panic.  Many passengers were unable to swim, and the life vests and other safety equipment was found to be useless.  The fire trapped people where they had fled for safety, and many were forced to jump into the East River, where they drowned.

For some reason, Captain Van Schaick ordered the boat to continue on to North Brother Island before making for land.  It was a decision that probably added many to the casualties.  When the toll was taken, there were only 321 survivors.  Over 1000, including Pastor Haas' wife and daughter, died in the fire, or the waters of the East River.

The fire aboard the General Slocum had a profound effect in the German community of Kleindeutschland.  The church community of St. Mark was devastated by the loss of so many of their church members, especially since the toll was high among the women and children of the church. The loss of so many lives had a disheartening effect on the German community in lower Manhattan in general.  Within the previous decade, many in the community had begun to move north in Manhattan to the newer upper east side German community of Yorkville.  The Slocum disaster caused many to leave behind the sad memories by moving out of Kleindeutschland and north.


Karen T. Lamberton, Angels in the Gate: New York City and the General Slocum Disaster, (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2006).

Edward T. O'Donnell, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, (Broadway Books, 2003).  The site contains a searchable list of dead and missing.  Where possible it lists the county where the death was recorded (Bronx for all I found), and the death certificate number.  Contains transcription of newspaper articles about the disaster and lists of dead and missing by address and surname.

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