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

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.

On shore, fire alarms were being transmitted as the blazing ship continued upstream. Fire companies responded to the river’s edge in answer to the alarms. Engine 60 and Ladder 17 arrived first, but the companies could only stand by helplessly as the ship churned its way forward, flames and smoke billowing from its decks and women and children leaping into the swirling waters. Captain Joe Devine raced for a telephone and requested the response of FDNY fireboat Zophar Mills.

Photos from author’s collection
The weakened upper structure of the General Slocum, still holding some passengers, collapsed in a shower of sparks and flames. The disaster led to a major upgrading of regulations that dramatically increased steamboat safety throughout the United States.

The General Slocum’s captain held the wheel straight, passing frantic firemen screaming and waving at the burning vessel. Below decks, the crew was making valiant attempts to get water on the fire, but was faced with burst line after burst line. The captain held fast, never bringing the ship around to lessen the wind-driven extension of the flames. Firefighters at the Bronx Pier watched as the ship sailed by. Devine had stood by long enough and ordered the firefighters, “Take to the boats, men!”

Land-based firefighters joined the fireboat crew and pulled people from the river while they shadowed the blazing ship. As the number of people in the water grew, members of the FDNY began diving into the treacherous currents and swimming toward the struggling victims, then pulling them to safety. Eleven members of the nearby Bronx Yacht Club took to three small boats and joined the Zophar Mills in a heroic rescue effort.

As scores of people onboard leaped into the river, panic began to take hold of the pilothouse. The captain ordered the ship be kept at full speed and to be beached on North Brother Island, even though the mainland shore was filled with would-be rescuers, fire trucks and ambulances. Facing punishing smoke and heat, the helmsman followed his captain’s orders and drove the ship into a rocky cove on the far side of the island.

Grounded in shallow water, the General Slocum’s bow became completely engulfed in flames, forcing the passengers aft. Those trapped at the stern by the extending fire faced a steep jump into water 30 feet deep. As the flames roared toward them, they had no choice and leaped into the river.

The weakened upper structure of the ship, still holding some passengers, collapsed in a shower of sparks and flames, throwing those who had not yet jumped into the water. Tugboats, fireboats, police boats and pleasure craft descended on the scene as dozens and dozens of people, mostly women and children, bobbed helplessly in the water. Tugboats were credited with saving as many as 200 people. The Zophar Mills plucked more than 150 live souls from what would have been a watery grave.

The last to leave the sinking steamboat were Van Schaick and First Pilot Edward Van Wart. As the flaming superstructure of the upper decks crashed around them, they jumped to the deck of a tugboat stationed below.

FDNY Chief Edward Croker arrived, but the grizzled veteran of many terrible fires could only shake his head in wonder. Why didn’t they bring the ship in at 138th Street? Why didn’t they beach it on the sandy shore? Why did they head into the wind? Those same questions later were asked of the captain and his crew at the coroner’s inquest.

At the trial, Van Schaick explained his actions, but the jury was not convinced. He was convicted of criminal negligence and manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in Sing Sing prison. After three years, he received a pardon from President William H. Taft, then spent his remaining days in seclusion. The officials of the steamship company escaped with a relatively small fine, despite the fact the trial revealed the company had illegally falsified safety records.

The General Slocum tragedy took 1,021 lives, but brought about a major upgrading of steamboat safety regulations and a sweeping reform of the United States Steamboat Inspection Service. New recommendations included fireproof metal bulkheads to contain fires, improved lifejackets (one for each passenger and crew-member), stronger fire hoses and readily accessible lifeboats. Those improvements dramatically increased steamboat safety throughout the United States.

Paul Hashagen, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY firefighter who was assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Hashagen is the author of FDNY 1865-2000: Millennium Book, a history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service history books.