The ship was named for Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. It was built by Divine Burtis, Jr., a Brooklyn boatbuilder. Her keel was long and the hull was wide. The ship was built mostly of white oak and yellow pine. She displaced about 1,200 tons. She had three engines, built by W. & A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey. She was a sidewheel boat. Each wheel had 26 paddles and was in diameter. Its maximum speed was about . The ship had three decks. She usually had a crew of 22, including Captain William H. Van Schaick and two pilots.
The ship got underway at 9:30am. As she was passing East 90th Street, a fire started in a storage compartment in the forward section, possibly caused by a discarded cigarette or match. The first notice of a fire was at 10am - eyewitnesses locate the initial blaze at several locations, including a paint locker filled with flammable liquids or a cabin filled with gasoline. Captain Van Schiack was only notified ten minutes after the fire was discovered - a twelve year old boy had tried to warn him earlier, but was not believed.
On board the Slocum, where the Captain has ultimate safety authority, he did not demand that hoses and faulty lifejackets be replaced. The fire hoses fell apart when the crew attempted to put out the fire. Also, the crew had never had a fire drill. Although the ship had lifeboats and life preservers, they were useless. Survivors reported that the life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands. The lifeboats were tied up and inaccessible. Desperate mothers placed life jackets on their children and tossed them into the water, only to watch in horror as their children sank instead of floated, due to the condition of the jackets. Also, the population of the boat consisted mainly of women and children, most of whom could not swim.
It has been suggested that the manager of the life preserver manufacturer actually placed iron bars inside the Cork preservers to meet minimum weight requirements at the time. Managers of the company (Nonpareil Cork Works) were indicted, but not convicted. Many of the life preservers had been filled with cheap and less effective granulated cork and brought up to proper weight by the inclusion of the iron weights. Canvas covers, rotted with age, split and scattered the powdered cork.
Captain Van Schaick badly mishandled the situation. He decided to continue his course rather than run the ship aground or stop at a nearby landing. (Van Schaick would later argue he was attempting to prevent the fire from spreading to riverside buildings and oil tanks.) By going into headwinds and failing to immediately ground the vessel, he actually fanned the fire. Highly flammable paint also helped the fire to spread out of control.
Some passengers attempted to jump into the river, but the clothing of the day made swimming almost impossible. Many died instantly when the 3-level floors of the overloaded boat collapsed; others were mauled by the still turning paddles.
By the time the General Slocum was beached at North Brother Island, just off the Bronx shore, an estimated 1,021 people had been killed by fire or drowning, with 321 survivors. Two of the 30 crewmembers died. The Captain lost sight in one eye due to the fire. Reports indicate that Van Schaick deserted the Slocum as soon as she ran aground, jumping into a nearby tug, along with several crew. Some say his jacket was hardly rumpled. He was hospitalized at Lebanon Hospital.
There were many acts of heroism among the passengers, witnesses, and emergency personnel. Staff and patients from the hospital on North Brother Island participated in the rescue efforts, forming human chains and pulling victims from the water.
Seven people were indicted by a Federal grand jury after the disaster: the Captain; two inspectors; and the president, secretary, treasurer and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted. He was found guilty on one of three charges: criminal negligence, failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other two counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He spent three years and six months at Sing Sing prison before he was paroled. President Theodore Roosevelt declined to pardon Captain Van Schaick, and he was not released until the federal parole board, under the William Howard Taft administration, voted to free him on August 26, 1911. He was pardoned by President Taft on December 19, 1912, and died in 1927 .
The Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the ship, paid a relatively light fine despite evidence they may have falsified inspection records.
The remains of the General Slocum were recovered and converted into a barge, which sank in a storm in 1911.
The disaster motivated federal and state regulation to improve the emergency equipment on passenger ships.
The neighborhood of Little Germany declined following the disaster - many socially prominent people had been lost, and with the trauma and arguments that followed the tragedy, most of the German settlers eventually moved uptown.
On January 26, 2004, Adella Wotherspoon died at the age of 100. Mrs. Wotherspoon had been the last surviving passenger from the General Slocum's disastrous voyage. Mrs. Wotherspoon, then a six-month old named Adella Liebenow, lost two older sisters in the fire. Mrs. Wotherspoon also had the distinction of being the youngest survivor of the disaster. Though still a one year child, Mrs. Wotherspoon was given the honor of unveiling the Steamboat Fire Mass Memorial on June 15, 1905 at the Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens. The previous oldest surviving member was Catherine Uhlmyer (1893-2002).
MATTHEW PHILIP KAINRATH | VALERIE ANDREA DIPIETRO | JOSEPH TIMOTHY STARR | JACOB THOMAS HERRERA | JOSEPH MICHAEL FURCRON JR.
May 13, 1998; Celebrating the birth of their third child, a son, are Debbie and Bryan Kainrath. Matthew Philip, weighing 9 pounds, was born at...