The General Slocum Disaster: 1,021 Perished When a Sunday-School Excursion Became a Nightmare

Paul Hashagen details what happened when a Sunday-school picnic excursion turned into a flame- and water-filled nightmare.


New York has been the site of more than 2,000 shipwrecks and marine accidents. The most infamous of them all took place 100 years ago this month amid the deadly swirling currents of Hell Gate when a Sunday-school picnic excursion turned into a flame- and water-filled nightmare that took the lives of...


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New York has been the site of more than 2,000 shipwrecks and marine accidents. The most infamous of them all took place 100 years ago this month amid the deadly swirling currents of Hell Gate when a Sunday-school picnic excursion turned into a flame- and water-filled nightmare that took the lives of 1,021 people.

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Photos from author’s collection
The General Slocum was one of the largest, most majestic and busiest paddlewheel steamboats operating in New York City waters 100 years ago.

The General Slocum was a 13-year-old wooden steamship just short of 250 feet in length and 70 feet wide. With twin side-by-side smokestacks and three expansive decks, the paddlewheel craft was one of the largest, most majestic and busiest in the city. On the beautiful, bright and sunny Sunday morning of June 15, 1904, the ship left its berth at the Battery and sailed to the Recreation Pier at Third Avenue on the East River. At 8:20 A.M., the General Slocum began to fill with excited passengers eager for a day on the river, a picnic lunch at Locust Grove on Long Island and a pleasant return trip. Most of the passengers were members of a huge group from the German Lutheran Church on Sixth Street.

The ship freed its hawsers from the dock cleats and pulled out onto the East River, its whistles blasting as a band on the upper deck began playing. Starting upriver, the ship caught the attention of those on the shore, and the excited children on board began the ritual of waving and shouting to anyone who would wave back. Above them in the pilothouse, Captain William Van Schaick settled in for another easy trip on a beautiful day. The 68-year-old captain commanded a crew of 23 men and had an unblemished safety record after ferrying millions of passengers without incident.

Below decks, a chef was busy preparing a clam chowder lunch for the picnic grounds. The smell of smoke wafted across the decks, invigorating the appetites of those onboard as the ship approached Hell Gate, a treacherous stretch of water where the East River squeezes between Ward’s Island and Queens. Little did those onboard know at the time, but the smoke they were smelling was not from cooking – it was a fire smoldering in a storeroom nestled in the bow on the same deck as the galley.

As the ship slipped into the throat of Hell Gate, some children playing jacks on the lower deck noticed smoke coming from a cabin and ran off in search of a crewmember. The excited children returned with a mate, who felt the door and realized the danger immediately. He stepped back from the hot door and told the children, “Don’t tell anyone about this, they’ll fret over nothing!”

He called another mate for help, then they opened the door and were met with a flash of flames. They ran for a hose, stretched it to the door and opened the valve. No water. They started the fire pumps and still no water. They found the hose blocked to prevent leaking onto the deck. The blockage was cleared and the line charged again. As water swelled through the hose, the jacket burst open and a stream could not be developed. Inside, the fire had reached a stairway and was racing upward through the doomed ship.

One of the mates, a man named Flanagan, ran to the pilothouse. With fear etched on his face, he burst into the room. “There’s a fire in the storeroom up forward, Cap!”

“Well, go down and put it out,” ordered Van Schaick, who had taken over the wheel as the ship moved into the dangerous currents. Nearby, the captain of a dredge saw smoke pouring from the General Slocum and ordered four blasts of his whistle be sounded as a warning to the burning vessel’s crew. The crew on the dredge watched as the General Slocum steamed by, its decks filling with frantic passengers. As conditions on deck worsened, people began jumping from the burning ship into the river.

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