There is something about a ship sinking that truly frightens people. It is the equivalent of a plane crash or a disaster like 9/11. This is because mostly ordinary people know they don’t want to be caught in an extraordinary situation, and due to things beyond their control they would be thrust into danger and confronted with the possibility of dying. Whether it is on an ocean liner sinking into the icy deep or a plane falling from the sky, most of us don’t want to think about it, but when we do it is a thing of nightmares.
When I used to fly before 9/11 (which was frequently and now not at all), I still always worried about a plane crash. While other people brushed off the safety demonstrations by the flight attendants, I was pulling the card from my seat pocket and watching and listening carefully to the directions. I never took it for granted that the flight would be safe, though I know now that if the plane went down there would probably be little or no chance of surviving.
Still, people are lulled into a sense of security in these moments. The Titanic was touted as “virtually unsinkable,” but we know how that turned out. Still, eight years before the famous ship sank a lesser known one took roughly a thousand people to a watery grave – that ship was the General Slocum.
The Slocum left lower Manhattan on a beautiful hot June day in 1904, bound for the pastoral shores of northern Long Island where a day long picnic was planned for a group from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Greenwich Village (an area known as Little Germany at the time). Mostly women and children boarded the vessel which proceeded north along the East River where it caught fire in an area appropriately named Hell’s Gate.
Things quickly spiraled out of control. Whatever life saving equipment was available was minimal, and the life vests were so old and useless that apparently people who wore them and jumped into the water actually sank faster than if they jumped in without them. Also, since so many children were aboard, mothers frantically tried to save the children from the fire by throwing them overboard, only to have them sink before they could jump in to save them. Unfortunately, another factor was that many of the people had no idea how to swim and drowned.
Today a lovely tribute exists in All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, where sixty-one unidentified victims are buried. I remember visiting the Slocum Memorial as a boy and being struck by the engraving of the doomed ship on the tombstone, as well as the idea that so many were lost so close to shore, especially children. That thought still makes me shiver as I think of those poor little ones floundering in the river.
Going back today to visit the memorial I was pleased that it was as I remembered it. The surrounding community was mostly of German descent back in the early 1900s, and those victims found a permanent resting place in the heart of the neighborhood where restaurants like Niederstein’s and Zum Stammisch served the German inhabitants.
1904 is a long time ago, and those people lost and even those few (361) who survived are mostly long forgotten now, but as I stood there I wondered about the senseless loss of life. While it is legendary that the Titanic disaster caused major changes in sea travel, no one seemed to learn much from what happened on the Slocum. Perhaps had this disaster been taken seriously, something like the Titanic would have never happened. Unfortunately, it was seen as a local tragedy and its impact did little or nothing to change the way people traveled on ships. That would sadly come eight years later when a mythical ship struck an iceberg and became the stuff of legends.
If you are ever able to make a visit to All Faiths Cemetery, the memorial is a place to stop and think about the fragility of life and how mothers and children going to a picnic could have their worlds turned upside down forever. The memorial is a stark reminder of a sad moment but also a beautiful and lasting tribute to those lost and the people who cared enough to remember them.
Photo Credit: Slocum – archives.gov