The General Slocum Disaster, Hell Gate, New York City

The General Slocum Disaster, Hell Gate, New York City

The General Slocum Disaster: On a summer afternoon in 1904, the General Slocum, a supposedly unsinkable ship carrying about 1,300 people bound for a picnic, caught fire and sank in New York City’s notorious Hell Gate.

The General Slocum disaster was the second-worst maritime disaster in US history and the greatest loss of life in NYC before 9/11. But it’s been largely forgotten. When a church group and their neighbors went on an ill-fated day trip to Long Island, they encountered a disaster of unfathomable proportions, bolstered by greed, incompetence, and cowardice. And they would pay for other people’s mistakes with their own lives.

Over 1,000 people, mostly women and children, died that day, decimating the population of Manhattan’s Little Germany and devastating family members who’d been left behind. While this is an upsetting story, it’s an important one when looking at the Hell Gate’s history, as well as stories of the paranormal in the area.

Note: This episode contains stories about many people–including children–drowning and dying in a fire.

Highlights include:
• Drunk anarchists from Paterson, NJ
• What happened to NYC’s lost neighborhood of Little Germany
• An unsinkable ship that sank 8 years before the Titanic
• Heroic rescue efforts by tugboat captains and hospital employees and patients
• Guilty parties getting away with, if not murder, then manslaughter
• A possibly cursed ship


Episode Script for The General Slocum Disaster, Hell Gate, New York City

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • “It is absolutely impossible . . . to describe the horrible scene on the Slocum. The flames spread so rapidly and it seemed only a second before the whole craft was ablaze from end to end.” -an eyewitness quote printed in the New York Times, June 16, 1904
  • Next week, I want to talk about hauntings that have been reported in the Hell Gate area, but this week, I want to talk about one of the tragedies that inspired much of the talk of hauntings, bc it was so horrific. This is pretty upsetting, and includes stories about people drowning and dying in fires, and it also includes stories about children dying. So if any of that is something you don’t want to listen to, you can skip this episode and join me next week for the episode about the Hell Gate bridge and urban legends about the area.
    • In 1904, there was an accident that happened at Hell Gate, and it was the greatest loss of human life in a NYC disaster until 9/11. It was also the second-worst maritime disaster to happen in the US. This is a pretty upsetting story, so if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, particularly stories about people drowning and children being hurt, maybe skip it.
    • The accident happened onboard the PS Genera Slocum, a passenger steamboat that had been built in Brooklyn in 1891. She was one of those boats with a sidewheel, and was 235 feet long, 37.5 feet long, and was built from white oak and yellow pine. It had a capacity of 3,000 passengers.
    • She had three decks, three watertight compartments, and 250 electric lights.
      • She was said to be unsinkable, because of the watertight compartments.
    • The General Slocum had issues from the beginning.
    • Just 4 months after being launched, in 1891, she ran aground in the Rockaways and had to be pulled out by tugboats.
    • On July 29 1894, she was returning from the Rockaways carrying 4,700 passengers and hit a sandbar with so much force that the electrical generator went out. That means that all the lights went out. Hundreds of people were injured in the chaos.
    • Then in August 1894, the General Slocum ran aground off Coney Island during a storm. And it sounds like during the storm, they had to transfer the passengers to a different ship to be brought away.
    • The next month, in September 1894, the General Slocum hit a tugboat in the East River, which damaged the General Slocum’s steering.
    • In July 1898, the General Slocum collided with a ship called the Amelia, near lower Manhattan.
    • My favorite anecdote is in August 17, 1901, the General Slocum was carrying 900 drunk anarchists from Paterson, NJ, when the anarchists “started a riot” on board and tried to take over the ship. The crew fought back and didn’t let them, and when they came back to shore, the police arrested 17 of the men.
    • Then, in 1902, the General Slocum ran aground again, with 400 people onboard. They couldn’t get the ship out, forcing the passengers to spend the night on the ship.
    • So the General Slocum had a very bad record already, when on Wednesday, June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was located in Little Germany in Manhattan, hired it to take them on an excursion for $350.
      • One sidenote: I’d never heard of Little Germany, because it doesn’t exist anymore, in part because a lot of people who lived there were on board the Slocum with the church group this day. But it had been a neighborhood in the Lower East Side and East Village.
    • It was tradition for the church group to go on a trip like this every year, and they’d done it for 17 consecutive years.
    • Over 1,400 people, mostly women and children, got onto the General Slocum, looking forward to the picnic they were going to have on Long Island. Someone told the NYT that the ratio of women to men on board had been 12:1, so it really was predominantly women.
    • The ship left at 9:30 am. The plan was for the boat to take them up the East River, then over to the Long Island Sound to a place called Eatons Neck, Long Island, where there was a picnic site.
    • It made it up much of the East River, but after it passed Roosevelt Island and passed under where the RFK bridge is today, a discarded cigarette–or maybe a match–started a fire started in the ship’s Lamp Room. Unfortunately, the room was full of straw, oily rags, and lamp oil, which fed the fire. Some eyewitnesses said that the fire actual started at a paint locker which was full of flammable liquides, or a cabin full of gasoline. Either way, there were a bunch of flammable things on this wooden boat.
    • Around 10 am, people noticed the fire.
    • A 12-year-old boy tried to warn the captain, but the captain didn’t believe him. It was 10 minutes before the captain was officially notified.
    • So, let’s pause here. This ship’s had a bunch of problems throughout its life, and the whole time, it’s been owned by the same company. Now, if you owned a boat that tended to have disasters happen to it, you’d think that you’d really make sure your safety protocols were all buttoned up.
    • However, my guess is that the owners’ negligence may have been responsible for some of the ship’s earlier issues, based on what happened here. Though the captain deserves a healthy amount of blame here as well.
      • The captain had a couple options here.
      • He could have run the ship aground, or stopped at a nearby landing.
        • From studying nautical maps of the Hell Gate, I can confirm that there were tons of docks they could have gone to: they were close to Manhattan, but also Blackwell’s Island, which had several docks, and Hallets Point and Hallet’s Cove, which had docks.
        • According to a NYT article from the days after the disaster, the ship was only 300 feet from the shore of Manhattan when the fire started
        • The captain said that tried to go to a pier at 134th street, but a tugboat captain told he he shouldn’t because there was lumber and oil tanks stored there.
        • Some people say that he didn’t do it because of insurance reasons.
        • Still others say that the captain was afraid the steering gear would break down because of the currents.
        • There are stories of people who stood on shore watching the ship burn, wondering why the captain didn’t just steer the ship to shore.
      • So instead he just kept going, straight into headwinds that fanned the flames.
        • Between the wind and the ship’s flammable paint, the fire got out of control quickly.
        • It sounds like he was aiming for North Brother Island, which was a mile away from where the ship caught fire.
    • But that might have been less of a disaster, if the owners had maintained or replaced the safety equipment at all.
      • When the crew tried to use the fire hose, they found it had rotted through.
      • When they tried to get the lifeboats down, they found they were tied up out of reach, and they couldn’t get them down. Some people said that they had been painted and wired in place.
      • The crew had never been made to do a fire drill.
        • Apparently they didn’t even warn passengers about the fire or tell them what to do, so people panicked. The crew was supposedly in such a rush to abandon ship that they pushed passengers out of the way in their haste to get out.
        • The crew reportered that the fire was “a blaze that could not be conquered” and fighting it was “like trying to put out hell itself.”
      • One important thing to remember is that at the time, most Americans didn’t know how to swim, including most of the passengers on the General Slocum.
      • Many of the life preservers were kept up high, where many of the women and children couldn’t reach them. The people who got their hands on them found that they were worthless; they fell apart in their hands.
      • It’s been alleged that the company that manufactured the life preservers had filled them with granulated cork, which was cheaper but less effective than actual solid cork.
        • Also, to meet the weight requirements for life preservers, they’d added iron weights to the preservers.
        • Also, the life vests had hung above deck, in the elements, for 13 years, and the canvas covers had rotted through, so when they tried to use them, the powdered cork scattered everywhere.
      • This part is really upsetting, but mothers found life vests and put them on their children, then threw them in the water to save them from the fire. But the life vests didn’t work, and they had to watch their children drown.
      • Also at the time people tended to wear heavy wool clothing, which when it got wet, became really heavy and weighed people down. Especially if you’re a woman wearing all those layers of clothes.
      • So, many people drowned when they jumped out of the boat to escape the fire.
        • But the people who didn’t jump didn’t fare better: the floors of the boat collapsed, killing more people.
        • Many of the people who survived that ended up in the water with the paddles, which were still turning, and which killed even more people.
      • The captain was able to ground the ship about 25 feet from the shore of North Brother Island. He was the last person off the ship.
      • North Brother Island, a very creepy and interesting island that I want to talk more about later. But the thing to know about North Brother Island is that it had some hospitals on it, so both staff and patients came out to help save people, forming human chains to get people out of the water.
        • Apparently the patients in the contagious wards of the hospital on North Brother Island flipped out because they had to watch the disaster from their windows but couldn’t help. It took 50 doctors and nurses to restrain them, and they were locked up.
        • According to the City Health Commissioner, who was visiting the island, “Along the beach the boats were carrying in the living and dying and towing in the dead.”
        • There were tons of examples of people trying to help: for example, one tugboat captain came up to the General Slocum and was able to save 100 people.
        • Of course, there was also the story of the captain of a huge white motorized yacht who watched the disaster through binoculars without trying to help.
      • The captain and several crew members left the General Slocum as it settled. Apparently they were able to jump onto a nearby tugboat and were hospitalized. Though the captain said that he stayed with the boat as long as he could have, and that his cap even caught fire, though naturally he would say that.
      • The casualties were steep:
        • These numbers are a bit lower than some numbers I’ve seen elesewhere, but according to the Coast Guard, there had been 1,358 passengers and 30 crew on board.
        • 613 passengers were adults (mostly women), and 745 were children.
        • All told, 893 passengers and two crew members were confirmed as dying. (Though the final death count was set at 1,021, though there hadn’t been a ship’s manifest so they couldn’t be sure. The Brooklyn Eagle reporter 1,204 people as dead or missing.)
        •  62 passengers were missing or unidentified.
        • 175 passengers were injured, and 5 crew members were injured.
        • Only 228 passengers escaped without injury, though 23 of the 30 crew members were uninjured.
        • The captain lost sight in one eye because of the fire, and he stayed on the ship until his feet blistered from the heat.
      • After the disaster, a federal grand jury indicted eight people: the captain, two inspectors, and some employees of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, who owned the ship.
        • The captain was the only person who was convicted: he was found guilty of criminal negligence, though the jury didn’t find him guilty of the two charges of manslaughter that’d been leveled against him. He was sentenced to a 10 year prison sentence, and spent 3 and a half years at Sing Sing before being paroled.
          • A lot of accounts of the accident put the blame on the captain, but it looks to me like he was maybe just a scapegoat.
        • His wife tried to get a presidential pardon for him. Teddy Roosevelt, who was president, declined to pardon him, though Taft ended up pardoning him in 1912.
        • The Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid a small fine, even though there was evidence that they’d falsified inspection records.
        • The manufacturers of the life preservers were indicted, but not convicted.
        • Also, the ship had passed inspection, supposedly just a few weeks before.
        • So this, like most other tragedies, is about how greed and cowardice hurts innocent people but the real villains are rarely punished.
      • The remains of the General Slocum were salvaged and turned into a barge, which sank while carrying a cargo of coal in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of NJ during a storm in 1911. Four people were on board, and they all survived.
      • Like I mentioned earlier, this was devestating for the German community in NYC, but there had also been members of the Jewish and Italian communities on board. It sounds like a lot of people from the neighborhood went, even if they weren’t members of the church.
        • It seems that the remains of the Germany community moved up to Yorkville in the Upper East Side, and Astoria in Queens. Which is really grim, since those are two locations on the water looking out toward where the General Slocum disaster happened.
    • So anytime you’re talking about hauntings in Hell Gate, you have to keep in mind that there was massive loss of life there, some of which was young, innocent people who died because of human greed.
      •  If you google it, you can see pictures of bodies being washed up on shore after the General Slocum disaster. Many bodies were swept onto North Brother Island, as well as onto the shores all around there.
      • Officials and rescue parties tried to collect the bodies, though the shores were swarmed with souvenir hunters and people looking to take jewelry off the corpses.
      •  Divers brought up bodies that had sunk with the ship.
      • Crowds of mourners lined the shore, and supposedly many grieving family members had to be stopped from throwing themselves into the river.


Sources consulted RE: The General Slocum Disaster

Websites consulted RE: The General Slocum Disaster


Articles RE: The General Slocum Disaster

  • TALES OF HORROR TOLD BY SURVIVORS: Eye-Witness Stories of Swift and Awful Panic. FAMILY PARTIES WIPED OUT Mrny Brave Deeds on Board the Doomed Steamboat Amid Scenes of Wild Panic. New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 June 1904: 2.

  • GRIEF-CRAZED CROWDS VIEW LINES OF DEAD: Scores Prevented from Throwing Themselves Into River. BOAT LOADS OF BODIES Immense Crowds Weeping and Struggling Seek to Identify Them. MANY PATHETIC INCIDENTS Measures Taken by Officials to Safeguard Interest of Relatives — Over $200,000 in Valuables Found on the Victims. New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 June 1904: 1.

  • 1,000 LIVES MAY BE LOST IN BURNING OF THE EXCURSION BOAT GEN. SLOCUM: St. Mark’s Church Excursion Ends in Disaster in East River Close to Land and Safety. 693 BODIES FOUND — HUNDREDS MISSING OR INJURED Flames Following Explosion Drive Scores to Death in the Water. FIERCE STRUGGLES FOR ROTTEN LIFE PRESERVERS The Captain, Instead of Making for the Nearest Landing, Runs the Doomed Vessel Ashore on North Brother Island in Deep Water — Many Thrilling Rescues — Few Men on Board to Stem the Panic of Women and Children.
    New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 June 1904: 1.

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