The General Slocum

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 9:45pm

The Hyannis home’s basement contained brass wheels, binnacles, brass lanterns with green and red glass, barometers, binoculars, a brass diving hard hat, various frayed charts of Vineyard Sound, Cape Cod, and Nantucket shoals, postcards of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard steamships, compasses of various sizes, framed photographs of warships, and brass fittings of every size and function; there were ornate quarter boards: City of New York, City of Savannah, City of New Orleans, and the City of San Francisco. The old Chief puffed on a dangling Pall Mall, and handed me an old manila envelope, “Here, I want you to have this, Joe,” he said, “and you don’t want to lose it. The story behind the picture is very interesting.” As I followed the Chief around the basement listening to his show and tell of the old marine artifacts, I slipped the picture out of the envelope, and saw a careworn and original photograph of a steamship named the General Slocum. It would take me many years until I learned the significance of what happened to this steamer; the Chief knew that someday I’d track down information about the vessel. He knew I was inquisitive.

I worked with Ted Gelinas on the M/V Quonset back in the mid-seventies. He sailed as Chief and was a true character. He was also a very bright guy who loved history — his father had been in the ferryboat business — and he absorbed and retained a head full of interesting maritime facts. He was also a great wood carver. The aforementioned quarter boards were designed and carved by Ted when he was home from sea. He read extensively and enjoyed hoisting beers and talking about Joseph Conrad. The day he gave me the tour of his parent’s home in Hyannis on the Cape, he also asked me if I wanted a quarter board made with my name on it. “I’ll make you one of these if you want,” he said, “Sure,” I said. That was in 1978, and of course I forgot all about it because life happened and we went our separate ways. Twenty-two years later the quarter board was delivered to me in Point Judith. Go figure.

The PS General Slocum was advertised as the “Largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York.” She was built in Brooklyn and was launched on 18 April 1891; the vessel was owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. The General Slocum was a 235-foot sidewheeler with a 37-foot beam and a draft of 12.3 feet. She sailed with a crew of twenty-two men and could cruise at sixteen knots. Over her 13 years of service, the steamer had several incidents of groundings off Rockaway and Coney Island. She also collided with a tugboat on the East River and sustained major damage to her steering. Moreover, the General Slocum was commandeered by nine hundred rioting drunks after another collision off Battery Park. This boat had serious problems, which foreshadowed her fate on the East River.

Fire safety protocols are practiced on all merchant ships and passenger carrying vessels. (There is a reason that people travelling aboard the Block Island Ferries are asked “Do you have any gas or propane containers in your vehicle?”) There are Coast Guard inspections aboard all of the aforementioned vessels. In the case of what happened to the General Slocum on 15 June 1904 note well that an inquiry found the steamer had passed her safety inspections. Moreover, the inquiry found that there were flammable liquids stored in a paint locker aboard the vessel. Complacency was the undoing of the General Slocum.

On a beautiful June day, a group of German families from the Lower East Side of New York chartered the steamer for $350. It was a tradition for the members of a church group who were heading out for an outing to celebrate the end of the school year for the kids in their neighborhood. There were 1,400 souls aboard the steamer, heavily laden with mostly mothers and children. They were heading to a Long Island beach for a picnic. This idyllic scene went sideways shortly after the vessel headed up the East River when a young boy reported to the Captain that he’d smelled smoke — the information was dismissed. One half hour after the steamer left the dock, the fire began to spread, and what ensued was the worst loss of life in New York — until 9/11 — and the worst maritime disaster in the history of the United States. I’ll spare you the details of the fire because the statistics speak for themselves. (Google this.) What I will say, is that the tragedy could’ve and should’ve been averted.

The inquiry into this senseless tragedy found that although safety inspections were performed on the vessel, many safety issues were overlooked. For example, the firehoses and life jackets were so brittle from years of being in the sun’s rays that they were rendered useless. (In one account, a mother donned a life vest for her child and tossed her into the river, only to see her sink.) The crew were not schooled in how to fight a fire. Moreover, paint, oil, straw and gasoline were the fuel that began the fire, which was started by a tossed cigarette. The Captain was waved off a lumber dock when the fire started, so he steamed toward North Brother Island — next to Riker’s Island — where he planned to beach the vessel on her beam ends and allow people to jump off the boat. It was the best he could do. This is what Ted Gelinas meant decades ago, when he gave me the original photograph of the General Slocum. It was indeed an interesting story.