It is hard to believe that few people in New York City, let alone in the rest of the country, have any idea what happened 99 years ago this summer. On June 15, 1904, 1,021 out of more than 1,300 mostly Germans and German Americans enjoying an annual church outing, died in a steamboat fire right on New York’s East River. Yet, large-scale though it was, this tragic event has been all but lost in the annals of history until now. College of the Holy Cross historian Edward O’Donnell relays a detailed account of this horrible day in Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum.
O’Donnell immediately informs the reader that he has relied entirely on primary sources, taking no poetic license. He presents the backdrop of the story vividly in his description of 1904 New York City, and of the crowded tenement neighborhood known as Little Germany. During the second half of the 19th century, the Germans, like the Irish, had poured into New York and other cities, where their numbers rapidly grew. Unlike the Irish, though, the industrious Germans came with more crafts and capital, and were able to rise to the middle class fairly quickly as butchers, cabinet-makers, and brewers.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, its beloved Reverend George Haas, and its close-knit community of parishioners were the heart of Little Germany. Mainly working class, their lives revolved around working to make ends meet for their families. Leisure activities were rare. Times had eased a little bit, however. The church’s annual excursion had begun as a local picnic in 1887, but by 1904 had grown to a steamboat excursion to the shores of Long Island. Some of the German parishioners had become more successful, moving to Yorkville and Brooklyn, but were still drawn back to the “old neighborhood” for nostalgia and a day out. Additionally, the majority of passengers would be women and children, as it was very difficult for a man to get a weekday off from work. Nevertheless, hoards of families managed, on this picture-perfect day, to get away to enjoy a respite from the city grit.
O’Donnell walks us through a sham inspection session a month prior to the disaster in which inspectors barely skimmed the safety equipment and life preservers. Both parties benefited from this, for the boat’s captain, William Van Schaick, found it almost insulting to have someone question his ability to transport his passengers safely. As for the inspectors, the more boats they looked at, the more money they made. O’Donnell provides further insight into the public’s attitude toward consumer safety. The “Buyer Beware” attitude was still dominant, but it was changing as preventable accidents claimed more and more lives. Safety standard laws were passed but not greatly enforced — showing that laws and regulations are useless when disregarded by untouchable civil-servant inspectors. Still, steamboats were considered the safest means of travel, causing fewer deaths annually than railroads.
The catastrophic fire began, in a storage room full of hay, a few minutes after the steamboat had set off up the East River — and from there, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The crew proved incompetent, and the purely nominal safety plans were futile. The water hoses did not work, and the decades-old life preservers virtually disintegrated once opened or in the water.
O’Donnell’s depiction of the course of events — from the fire’s start to the landing of steamboat nearly 20 minutes later — is impressive. O’Donnell captures the terror. Since he has done such a good job of resurrecting the personalities aboard that day, the reader is in suspense wondering their fates. You’re relieved when you find out someone — usually a younger person or child — could swim, since the great majority did not know how. (The city had just recently opened some public swimming pools.) One girl’s escape is etched in my memory:
Without her realizing it, the intense heat had seared her right hand to the melted railing paint. With all her might she tore herself free and jumped, leaving behind a large patch of skin and her dreams of one day becoming a pianist.
Ship Ablaze is not a cheery book, and it can be an overwhelming read at times as you helplessly witness the destruction. But the details are neither overly gruesome nor exaggerated. O’Donnell’s explanations enable you to take a step back from time to time and look at the chaos objectively. The story would be unbearable otherwise. Fire, O’Donnell, explains, was feared by the residents living in the cramped, hazardous conditions of the tenements. Yet it was also their source of light, heat, and life. In a cruel irony, the same force they avoided every day was eventually to cause their demise. The trapped passengers had to jump into the boiling water below the steamboat or confront devouring flames. The heroic medical personnel and volunteers who received the dead and wounded on the shores of the East River could do little to save the badly wounded or to comfort the survivors.
The comparisons to September 11 are obvious. A passage about a policeman jumping into a boat to row out to help could easily be a firemen running into the burning World Trade Center towers. Whole families were lost on that boat. Men came home from work and no longer had wives and children. A neighborhood lost a large segment of its population. Clergymen of all denominations from all over the city came to assist a flock of people whose church had lost its entire leadership and many members of its congregation. Charitable organizations and relief funds supplied money for the massive number of funerals and for the orphaned children. The generous donations to the relief fund set up by then-mayor George McClellan Jr. were unprecedented, as this kind of charity was not the Victorian-era norm. Again reminiscent of September 11, one reporter at the time remarked: “Never again will I believe our city has no heart.”
Unfortunately, complaints about unequal disbursements arose then as well, and soured relationships. Some families claimed to have received no (or not enough) help; there was also fighting over where the surplus funding should go.
People’s memories faded fast, however. The tragedy affected a very specific group of people in a localized neighborhood, and World War I, O’Donnell argues, contributed to the dwindling sympathy for anything German. The legal proceedings were drawn out with only the captain — a scapegoat, really — serving any jail time. The people touched by the tragedy reacted in ways unfamiliar to contemporary Americans-they did not become publicly self-absorbed. On the day of the fire, children were sent back to homes with missing or dead parents and siblings. Grief counseling was unheard of. People kept their grief within, sometimes with suicidal results — especially for those who had lost entire families.
As a piece of history, O’Donnell’s book is insightful and educational. The description of New York City — its neighborhoods, politics, and atmosphere — is priceless. Anyone who is a New York history buff will not be disappointed — including taking in its photo display. As a good story, it is compelling. Though tragic and macabre, there is hope to be found in the heroic efforts of the rescue and medical teams, and in the survivors and family members who carried on and who, unlike most of the city and country, never forgot. O’Donnell’s story is a testament to the strength of a unique people in an equally unique city. We are reminded that we are tied to the past through our most calamitous events and the shared human pain that comes with them. The story O’Donnell relates is unforgettable and should be on everyone’s summer reading list.
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