In the 1950’s I lived on East 6th Street in New York City. While normally taking a bus to school, I occasionally walked following a route that took me through Tompkins Square Park. The park was home to a simple and what appeared to be long-neglected fountain. It was just something to walk by.
It wasn’t until 2004 that I learned the fountain had been built as a memorial to the 1,021 New Yorkers who lost their lives on June 15, 1904 in a fire on the excursion ship General Slocum. On that bright sunny day, over 1300 people, mostly women and children who had emigrated from Germany, crowded aboard the ship at the East River’s 3rd street pier in anticipation of a day of fun at the Locust Grove picnic grounds on Long Island. The excursion had become an annual congregational event of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over 1500 tickets had been sold. The church, now long closed, was located on 6th street, my street.
The General Slocum was an attractive steam powered side-wheeler. In 1891 it was recognized as one of the finest recreational passenger vessels serving the New York area and was in great demand, but by 1904 it was past its prime. It was equipped with six lifeboats, but due to many coats of paint they were virtually glued to their davits. Over 2000 life jackets were available throughout the ship, but they were filled with cork that had over time turned to powder. When wet they became weights instead of providing buoyancy. The fire hoses on the ship had never been used and their fabric had begun to rot. The ship itself had kept its handsome appearance thanks to multiple coats of highly flammable paint. Nevertheless, the General Slocum passed a safety inspection in the spring of 1904. Following the fire, an investigation revealed that it was common for the inspectors to accept gifts in exchange for a good report.
As I see it, the General Slocum disaster has never received the attention such a tragedy deserves. While the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 has become legendary, the loss of life in the East River was quickly forgotten. Not until 9-11 had New Yorkers experienced an event involving comparable loss of life. The likely reason for the neglect of this tragedy was that the majority of those who died were working class immigrants who were not yet considered “Americans” or New Yorkers. While an investigation documented the failure of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company to provide and maintain the mandatory safety standards in place in 1904 the families of the victims received no compensation for their loss. The ship’s captain was held responsible, convicted and imprisoned for three years. In 1934, the film Manhattan Melodrama with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, William Powel and Mickey Rooney began with a scene of the burning General Slocum but only to set the context for the remainder of the film. It seems to me the story itself is worthy of a screenplay and producer.