Before the attack on the World Trade Center, this was the greatest tragedy in New York history. It happened just 108 years ago on June 15th.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning. And down at a pier on the Lower East Side, more than a thousand passengers were boarding the excursion boat General Slocum for a trip up the East River to a picnic ground in Eaton’s Neck, Long Island. The people in this community, mainly German immigrants, had been looking forward to this event for days.
The boat was a triple-decker wooden side paddler named after a Civil War hero. The mood was festive. The passengers, mostly women and children, carrying picnic baskets, were looking forward to a day by the sea. As flags waved in the breeze, a band played a Lutheran hymn: "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."
"A mighty fortress is our God," the lyrics read. "A trusty shield and weapon."
Nearly 1,400 passengers went aboard. The ship shoved off. It had steamed to a point off 125th Street when fire was discovered in a cabin on the main deck. Captain William J. Van Schaick increased the speed -- but he never explained why.
Now, crackling flames quickly engulfed the ship. As historian Edward Ellis wrote, "boys and girls climbed deck chairs and waved frantically toward the shore. Now the encroaching flames set their clothing afire. Terrified women tried to herd the children to the stern, but the panic-stricken, screeching youngsters could not be managed."
Some people jumped into the water and swam to shore. Others drowned. On the Manhattan shore, some people yelled at the captain to beach the vessel. He ignored their cries. Finally, he ran the boat on North Brother Island. Ellis wrote: "Floating in the water were bodies blackened and bloody, torn and seared. Veteran reporters looked and wept."
In 40 minutes what had started as a joyful day had turned into a tragedy. The death toll was 1,021. New York was a bustling newspaper town and the headlines of that day gave some sense of the horror. The Times headline: "St. Mark’s Church Excursion Ends in Disaster in East River Close to Land and Safety."
The banner in the World read: "List of Slocum’s Dead May Reach 1,000."
At All Faiths Cemetary on Metropolitan Avenue in Queens, several hundred victims are buried, including 61 still unidentified. A few hundred people attended a memorial service there last Saturday, according to the Queens Chronicle.
Busso von Alvensleben, the German consul general in New York told the Chronicle: "It’s extraordinary to see so many German names on tombstones. Today is a very special day. The General Slocum is far back in the mist of history, a most traumatic moment. A sense of history honors the victims and those who uphold their memory. "
A woman from Port Jefferson, Long Island, Anne Hanrahan, came to the ceremony to honor her great grandmother, who died in the disaster and is buried at All Faiths. She wrote her master’s thesis on the event. "I am obsessed," she told the newspaper, "with not letting this become a forgotten tragedy."
The utter horror of that mournful day was expressed by Coroner Berry of the Bronx. He said that every dead woman brought into the temporary morgue at the Alexander Avenue station house in the Bronx wore a heavy gold wedding ring on the third finger of her left hand.
"Wives, all of them," he said, "and mothers, too. I don’t doubt. It is the most awful sight I have ever seen."