June 15th 1904 was the day of the seventeenth annual picnic of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church whose members were mostly of German birth or origin. Some 1300 church members boarded a triple-decker wooden ship called the General Slocum. Since June 15th was a weekday, most passengers were women and children. Such excursion by boat were quite common at the time and the General Slocum was one of about a dozen steamers that traveled the New York waterways, affording the working class a brief escape from the city.
Twenty minutes into the boat ride to picnic grounds at Eatons Neck, Long Island flames broke out on the ship. The captain docked the ship near Riker’s Island, and by the time the flames subsided, the death toll exceeded one thousand.
The accident was attributed to inadequate safety precautions and negligence of the captain, who was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Sing Sing.
The loss of lives on the ship was tragic enough, but the effect on the community was devastating. The horror and grief was so unbearable that a number of fathers who lost their entire families on the General Slocum, committed suicide. For all practical purposes, the General Slocum tragedy marks the end of the German community of kleindeutschland. Those who remained left the area and the golden age of Germans in the lower east side was effectively over.
A year later an eight feet tall memorial fountain was unveiled here at the northwestern corner of Tompkins Square. On it are engraved a picture of two children looking toward the sea and the words “they were earth’s purest, children young and fair. “
While New Yorkers can be a competitive group, there are some records we don’t like to break. Regretfully the tragic events of 9/11 replaced the General Slocum disaster as the event with most casualties in the city’s history.