Gail's Book Nook

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Looking Out the Window: Welcome Reverend Keith Boyer

Reverend Keith Boyer who grew up in New York City shares a little known story about his native town.

A Nearly Forgotten New York Story

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.

The fire broke out in a small storage room containing jars of lamp oil, a container of oily rags and bales of straw. Within minutes the wooden ship was ablaze from head to stern. The rotting fire hoses burst under pressure. Those who put on life jackets and jumped overboard quickly sank and drowned. In desperation the captain attempted to ground his ship on an island in the East River. By the time he did so, it was too late. Fewer than 300 survived. Later that day husbands returned home from work to learn that they had lost their entire families. The tragedy marked the beginning of a major population shift in Manhattan’s lower east side as grieving husbands and fathers moved away, making room for a new influx of immigrants, most notably Jewish people from Eastern Europe.

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.

The photo of the sinking General Slocum is used by permission from "The Mariners Museum, Newport News, VA."

Reverend Keith's Bio: Keith is a "P-K" (preacher's kid) raised in New York City. He is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and was ordained by New York Presbytery in 1966. Moving to Canada the same year, he has served four churches in New Brunswick, Manitoba, and Ontario. Keith left the position of Director of Membership Development at The Riverside Church in New York City for the position of Mission Consultant for the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda from which he recently retired. He has written curriculum, worked on numerous national and presbytery committees, and was convener of the Task Force on the Revision of the Book of Praise. Retirement from full-time ministry allows Keith to do part-time consulting and workshop leadership in the areas of congregational development and revitalization, stewardship education, and conflict management. He is registered as a coach in Natural Church Development. He describes himself as a pastor, a gadfly encouraging congregations to recognize the need for change, and a coach for churches committed to renewal. Keith is based in Barrie, Ontario. He and Carolyn have three adult daughters and six grandchildren. For relaxation, Keith enjoys model railroading, gardening, astronomy, and theatre.


Miss Mae said...

Wow, that is so interesting! I'd never heard of that! How tragic. And I agree. I think it'd make a wonderful film!

Laurean Brooks said...

Keith, I was already mentally visualizing this as a movie before you mentioned it.

So Tragic. Have you thought of writing a screenplay, creating unforgettable, heartwarming characters? This story should be told. You just may be the one to do it.

Congratulations on all your accomplishments and may God continue to bless you.

Sherry Gloag said...

That is a tragic historical memory that deserves to be remembered. If it is made into a film, I hope the screenwriter will give the story its due respect and not put a 'modern' spin on it.
There is a lot of power in the picture of the memorial fountain.
Thanks for sharing

Anne Patrick said...

Facinating post, Gail. Those poor people. Glad you are bringing awareness to this tragic event.

Gail Pallotta said...

Hi Miss Mae, Laurean, Sherry and Anne,

Thanks to all of you for stopping by. I agree that this would make a good movie.

Cynthia said...

This is a very interesting story that deserves to be told.

Gail Pallotta said...

Hi Cynthia,

Thanks so much for stopping by. I too thought this story very interesting.

Kathleen L. Maher said...

What a great write-up of an important piece of New York history. Thank you for sharing this. I had heard of this tragedy through my mother, whose Irish and German ancestors settled in New York City. I believe Jimmy Breslin also wrote about it.
The Big Apple has many stories like that, and my mother recounts her grandmother's stories of Mark Twain's strolls through Battery Park, and the race riots during the Civil War where Irish draft dodgers hung innocent black people from lamp posts.
I write a blog about New York State history, and I would love to repost this there with your permission.
contact me at mahereenie at yahoo dot com.

Thanks! :D