“It Was Sweeping Up From Below Like a Tornado”: SS General Slocum

Henry Warren Slocum Courtesy Library of Congress

It would be a beautiful and marvelous steamer, named after the Civil War general, Henry Slocum. So in 1890 construction of the steamboat General Slocum began in Brooklyn, New York. The next year the Slocum was launched. She made the Knickerbocker Steamship Company proud as she brought in profits. But that didn’t last long. The earnings began slacking off as time passed and the Slocum was just like any other steamer. (Note: A ship, even if it is named after a man, can be referred to as she, for those of you who are curious. Tradition, you see.) Frank Barnaby, president of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, pinched as many pennies as possible. He didn’t invest in lifesaving equipment and what the Slocum was supplied with, was in a disgraceful state. Much of the lifebelts were rotten, reduced to a form of dirt. Lifeboats were immovable, having been tied and/or painted to such an extent that they were stuck to their chocks. The fire hoses were old and useless and drills were never held. Although there were the inspections they were a waste of time and money. Many of the inspectors tended to look the other way.

Since 1888 the Lutheran congregation of St. Mark’s had gathered for a yearly excursion. This year would be no different. The church had hired the Slocum to take them to Empire Cove. On June 15, 1904 about 1,300 people were on the steamer. There were people of all ages, men, women and children, most coming from Little Germany. It looked as if it would be a promising outing. That is if the ship ever pulled out. The voyage was delayed for approximately one hour, due to other passengers delayed arrival. When it was finally time to set out, there was a slight interruption. Two families who did not know each other, abandoned the ship just as the gangplank was being hauled in. The two groups had been overcome with an unseen fear and awful foreboding. For them it would prove a wise decision.

General Slocum Courtesy Wikipedia

Not long into the voyage a fire started in the lamp room, cause unknown. A deckhand by the name of John Coakley was being treated at the bar when a boy brought to his attention that there was smoke in one of the stairways. Following the smoky trail, Coakley arrived at the door to the lamp room. Inside was a rather insignificant fire, and Coakley tried to find something to put it out with. With nothing handy he dumped a pile of charcoal on it, halting the fire for a time. A greenhorn, Coakley wasn’t sure if he should alert the captain or not. Instead he set out to find First Mate Edward Flanagan, leaving the lamp room door open. Coakley found Flanagan and informed the officer.

Mate, there’s a fire forward, and it’s got a pretty good headway

By the time Flanagan encountered the fire it had spread. The 1st Mate yelled through a blower to Captain Van Schaick. Before Flanagan had told Van Schaick, a boy had also clued the captain in. Thinking it was a practical joke Van Schaick angrily ordered the boy off.

Flanagan went down to the engine room and told the chief engineer, Ben Conklin, to

Get to the pump

In the crew’s rush to get the hose to the fire, the hose became twisted, knotting up, as it was pulled. Old and brittle it busted in several different places. They made another failed attempt to put the fire out before Flanagan ordered people to the boats. Van Schaick was going down to assess the fire when it

drove me back. It was sweeping up from below like a tornado

Passengers and crew alike panicked and rushed to get away from the blaze. It was mayhem as families were separated by the onslaught. Others were trampled to death. At this time in history, swimming wasn’t a well-known art. This made many thankful for the lifebelts. Unfortunately, this would prove to be the deaths of those who donned the devices. An example would be the Kircher family. Elizabeth Kircher had three children. Two could swim, one couldn’t. The mother strapped a lifebelt around the seven-year-old girl who could not swim and over the side the child went. She never surfaced. The rotten lifebelts had dragged people to the bottom, much like as if they had been attached to a concrete block. The idea of escaping in a lifeboat was abandoned when it became apparent they could not be budged.

General Slocum Courtesy Wikipedia

Van Schaick decided he had to beach the steamer at North Brother Island as the fire quickly spread. Behind the Slocum, tugs, small boats and other vessels rushed to catch up in hopes of saving some of the Slocum’s occupants. When it appeared it was nearly impossible to catch up with the Slocum, some boats fell behind to pick up the dead and living left behind, who had either fallen, jumped or were pushed overboard. When the Slocum finally beached, boats began pouring to rescue the pitiful humanity. Captains and deckhands alike dived into the water and saved people. The tugboat John Wade was tied up next to the Slocum rescuing people. Unfortunately, it’s captain Jack Wade was forced to pull away from the steamer as his tug began to catch fire. He didn’t want to leave. Not just then. There were still so many people needing help. But he had to consider the safety of those already aboard his tug. He ordered the tug to pull away. That’s when they noticed that the Wade‘s propeller was entangled. With every passing minute the fire was quickly spreading on the tug . In the nick of time a fire boat came to the rescue spraying water on the Wade.

Flanagan and other crew members proved almost worthless when it came to rescue operations. Although, by no means were all crew members like this. Take for instance Van Schaick who stuck to his post till the very last. He would later be kept under lock and key while enduring burns and a broken foot. When Flanagan made his way to safety aboard the Wade, which was still tied up to the Slocum, he proceeded to make an effort to get the Wade away. Jack Wade promptly threw the officer overboard. From North Brother Island men and women swam out to the wreck and began dragging victims ashore. Their bravery and selflessness saved many lives that day.

The dead were later taken to a morgue and awaited identification. It was a terrible duty for the remaining family members left behind in the wake of the disaster, but it was one that had to be done. For others they would never find their loved ones’ remains. Those that were beyond recognition were placed in coffins, which were closed up. When the dead started coming in, the death toll had been placed somewhere around 200. As they would soon realize, it was more like 1,000. It was a ghastly number of souls taken away. Survivors of the tragedy, although much of them suffering from some type of wound, searched the hospitals and morgue for their missing relatives. The morgue was always last resort. No one cherished the thought of finding family in the morgue. It affected many to such a point that they tried to kill themselves. More than one person was restrained from performing such an act.

Source: O’Donnell, Edward T. Ship Ablaze.



4 thoughts on ““It Was Sweeping Up From Below Like a Tornado”: SS General Slocum

  1. Yes, Barnaby almost as soon as he learned of the disaster was working to cover his tracks. Others even testified that Van Schaick’s actions to beach at North Brother Island had not been out of line, that they would have done the same. Still Van Schaick seemed to have done well afterwards, although the Slocum no doubt ‘followed’ him. He married and settled down on a farm.

    In regards to how long he served it was three years, almost four, and his wife was able to get a petition together and send it to Taft, who pardoned Van Schaick.


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