General Slocum Disaster: A look back at New York City’s worst maritime disaster

Mike Schuler
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June 15, 2010

Today, June 15th 2010, marks the 104th aniversary of the General Slocum disaster, a twin-paddlewheel steamboat that caught fire and sank shortly after leaving Manhattan for a daytrip up the Long Island Sound. Of the estimated of the 1,342 people on board the vessel, 1,021 were killed, making the event the worst disaster in terms of loss of life for the New York metro area, a title it held for nearly 100 years.

In remberance of the event, here is a look at the book “Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum” by Edward T. O’Donnell provided by Failure Magazine:

When the twin-paddlewheel steamboat General Slocum departed Manhattan for Long Island Sound on the morning of Wednesday June 15, 1904, the 1,300-plus passengers on board expected nothing more than a relaxing day trip. The itinerary called for a short ride up the East River to Long Island’s Locust Grove, where the travelers would eat, drink and play to their heart’s content before being ferried back home. It’s safe to say that swimming was not one of the planned activities, as the mini-cruise called for participants to wear their Sunday best, and few early 20th century New Yorkers knew how to swim, anyway. But just minutes into the excursion a fire started below deck, and before long flames engulfed the boat, forcing the passengers into the water.

In the new book, “Ship Ablaze” (Broadway), historian Edward O’Donnell recounts the General Slocum story, a tragedy that took the lives of 1,021 people—mostly women and children. Initially, the fire and subsequent horrors were viewed as a simple, albeit catastrophic, accident. But when survivors reported the alarming disrepair of the boat’s safety equipment, it became evident that corporate greed, corruption and negligence were to blame for the casualties. Within a week, grand jury hearings were underway to determine culpability, but the victims’ families would get no satisfaction. The decisions and actions that led to the second-deadliest incident in New York’s history went almost entirely unpunished.


Above image via FailureMag courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

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