Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy Of The Steamboat General Slocum

Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy Of The Steamboat General Slocum

by Edward T. O'Donnell


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There were few experienced swimmers among the 1,300 Lower East Side residents who boarded the General Slocum on June 15, 1904. It shouldn't have mattered, since the steamship was only chartered for a languid excursion from Manhattan to Long Island Sound. But a fire erupted minutes into the trip, forcing hundreds of terrified passengers into the water. By the time the captain found a safe shore for landing, 1,021 had perished. It was New York's deadliest tragedy prior to September 11, 2001.

The only book available on this landmark calamity, Ship Ablaze draws on firsthand accounts to capture both the horror and heroism of the event.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767909051
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: 06/10/2003
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 332
Product dimensions: 6.46(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.17(d)

About the Author

Edward T. O’Donnell is an associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Visions of America and 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History. He lives in Holden, Massachusetts with his wife Stephanie, and four daughters, Erin, Kelly, Michelle, and Katherine (and their dog Sammy). To learn more, please visit his website,

Read an Excerpt

The Captain
He awoke to the same familiar sounds as on every morning--the creak and groan of a wooden vessel at pier, the persistent lap, lap, lap of water against the hull, the squawk of a seagull, the peal of a distant ship whistle. Dawn was breaking over the Hudson River, and another day of furious maritime activity was about to begin.
It was still dark as the captain rolled off his bunk, dressed, and stepped out on the deck of his boat. The air was cold, but it being June 14, there was a noticeable springlike hint in it. Out across the frigid, seemingly motionless river he could see the sources of the morning's first sounds. Dark silhouettes of tugs and barges moved in the distance, punctuated here and there by colored lanterns. Seagulls stood on the ship railings and soared overhead looking for the first sign of breakfast. Closer by, the captain saw row upon row of boats at pier, most dark and silent as though sleeping, but a few like his with lantern light streaming from a cabin window.
Captain William Van Schaick, like a lot of old-time unmarried captains, lived aboard his boat. He did so less because of some romantic love of the sea and more to simply save money. At sixty-seven years of age, retirement was not far off and he needed to save every penny of his $37.50 per week salary if he wanted to avoid living out his last days in poverty. He still paid rent, but less than half the going rate for a Manhattan apartment. Plus you couldn't beat the commute.
The onset of warm weather meant his busy season was upon him. From late May to early October he'd work nearly every day as New Yorkers clambered aboard his boat on group outings to the shore and day trips to see thebig yacht races. Today was the eighth charter excursion of the young season for him. He'd been at it now for more years than he cared to remember, including the last thirteen on this steamboat, the General Slocum. In fact, he had been the only captain the steamer had ever known.
Tethered to a long, weatherbeaten pier, the steamboat rolled gently back and forth with the silent rhythms of waves left by passing vessels. In the faint predawn light then beginning to brighten the sky over the Hudson, the steamer General Slocum presented an imposing, dark silhouette. Unlike many of its fellow passenger steamers, many of which began their careers in other port cities like Boston, Providence, or Newport, the General Slocum was a New York boat through and through. It was built by the Devine Burtis shipbuilding firm in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in 1890-91. Miss May Lewis, niece of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company's president, joined a large crowd of spectators on the day of the launch in April 1891. Moments after she broke a bottle across its bow, the steamboat slid down the ways into the chilly waters of New York harbor.
As befitting a locally built boat destined to ply local waterways, the Knickerbocker Steamboat Co. named it for Maj. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum (1827-94). A graduate of West Point, Slocum had served with distinction in the Union Army, including commands at Gettysburg and with Sherman's scorched-earth march to the sea across Georgia. Slocum parlayed his military record into a successful law practice and three terms in Congress between 1869 and 1885. Affixing the name of this much-
admired elder statesman to the paddle box in large fancy lettering would, the owners hoped, lend the new steamboat an aura of respectability, honor, glory, and history.
The steamer itself, however, conveyed a very different image. The moment its sharp hull sliced into the chilly waters of New York harbor on that cold spring morning in 1891, there was no question which passenger steamer stood supreme. No steamboat in and around New York could compare with the General Slocum in terms of design and luxurious appointments. At 264 feet in length and weighing 1,281 tons, the Slocum was not the largest boat of its kind in the harbor. Even its sister ship, the Grand Republic, was longer. But its sleek, wooden hull that swept gracefully upward from stern to prow indicated a steamboat designed for both speed and elegance as well as size. As was the custom of the day, the Slocum's hull was painted a brilliant white. Above it the three stacked decks, cabin walls, rails, doors, and benches were varying shades of brown varnished wood.
The Slocum's interior was likewise designed to provide up to twenty-five hundred passengers with a maximum of luxury and comfort. Two large open rooms called "saloons" on the lower and middle decks provided passengers with wicker chairs upholstered in fine red velvet and tables at which they could enjoy good things to eat from the kitchen and bar. Lush carpeting, fine paintings, wood carvings, and ornate light fixtures here and elsewhere in the boat's several lounges added to its ambience. Abundant windows allowed for a maximum of natural light and fresh air. For those who wanted more of both, there was the vast upper or "hurricane" deck, some ten thousand square feet of open space enclosed only by a three-foot-high railing. Towering above it all stood two large side-by-side smokestacks painted a flat yellow.
In 1891 no steamboat in New York could equal the Slocum's beauty and opulence. Nor could any steamboat match its combination of speed, size, and maneuverability. Deep inside the boat's hull, beneath the decks devoted to the needs and whims of the passengers, lay the enormous steam-powered engine built by the W. & A. Fletcher Company in Hoboken, New Jersey. Attached to it were two massive paddle wheels mounted on both sides of the boat. Each was nine feet wide, thirty-one feet in diameter, and studded with twenty-six paddles. With the engine running at full throttle, they could claw the water with such ferocity that the steamer reached the astonishing speed of fifteen knots. Even still, speed and size did not compromise maneuverability, for the Slocum was fitted with an ultramodern steam-powered steering system.
None of this was possible, of course, without steam. One deck below the W. & A. Fletcher engine were two huge boilers and an entire hold compartment full of several tons of coal. The age of steamboat travel had dawned nearly a century ago on the very waters where the Slocum now floated. In 1807, Robert Fulton became the first person to successfully apply steam power to a boat when he piloted the Clermont 150 miles up the Hudson River to Albany. Fulton's triumph announced the arrival of the industrial age, when new technology would allow man to defy nature--in this case, the relentless downward flow of a major river. More precisely, it ushered in a new era, decades before the railroad, of steam-propelled travel. And with each passing decade, subsequent inventors and engineers made enormous improvements in steamboat power, efficiency, speed, and safety. By the time of the General Slocum's launch in 1891, massive steam-driven ocean liners routinely crossed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, carrying thousands of passengers and tons of cargo.
Much of the Slocum's mechanical format was visible for all to see. Mounted amidships just aft of the smokestacks stood a tall steel tower surmounted by a diamond-shaped lever. Attached to one end of the lever was the engine's twenty-foot-high piston rod. Attached to the lever's other end were two drive rods that led to the paddle wheels (see diagram). As the rhythmic pulses of steam from the boiler caused the piston rod to move upward and downward six feet in each direction, it moved the lever, which in turn moved the wheels. Despite its deceptively simple appearance, it was a highly complex system of energy generation and transfer, the product of more than two centuries of refinement in engineering.
For its first five seasons the General Slocum enjoyed a reputation as one of the city's finest passenger steamers. On weekends and holidays from late May to early October, it made two round-trips from Manhattan to Rockaway, a popular seaside retreat in outermost Queens on Long Island. At fifty cents for a round-trip, New Yorkers of every class enjoyed the two and a half hours (75 minutes each way) about the commodious Slocum almost as much as the intervening time at the beach. On weekdays and special occasions such as the annual international yacht races off Sandy Hook, groups paid top dollar to charter the steamboat.
But in that era of incessant advancements in technology and cutthroat competition between passenger lines, the Slocum's reign as the city's top steamer was short-lived. What had been cutting-edge technology and the very latest in first-class appointments in 1891 were by the mid-1890s rather unexceptional. Newer, bigger, faster steamboats with far more luxurious accommodations such as full dining rooms, lounges, and dance floors now commanded the attention--and dollars--of the city's swell set. By 1896 the Slocum had slipped to the second-tier rankings of steamboats, still very respectable and profitable, yet considerably less so than the day she went into service. The boat rarely sat idle during the peak season, only now it was chartered by middle- and working-class groups like unions, fraternal societies, and churches.
Today it was the latter, a church group bound for Empire Grove on Long Island Sound. An hour after the captain awoke, the steamer buzzed with activity as the crew prepared it for the excursion. Tons of coal and water were brought aboard along with ample food, drink, and ice. Deckhands spiffed up the boat's appearance using mops and rags and then hosed the whole boat down. Most crews used their own boat's fire hose and pump for this morning ritual, but not on the Slocum. For as long as anyone could remember, they had used a hose and hydrant from the pier. And it was just as well, for anyone could see that the Slocum's weathered fire hoses were not up to the task.
It took only fifteen minutes or so to complete the wash-down. Cloudy gray torrents of water spilled from the boat's scuppers, carrying away layers of salt, seagull droppings, coal soot, and traces of fine cork dust. The latter fell every day from the twenty-five hundred tattered life preservers slowly disintegrating in their racks above the decks. Minutes later, the deckhands cast off lines and the Slocum headed down the Hudson River to a pier where more than a thousand passengers awaited, eagerly anticipating a day of fun at the shore, safe from the dangers of the city.
Empire City
Not long after the Slocum glided down the Hudson for its scheduled rendezvous with its church group, a ferry pulled away from its landing in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. Jammed to the rails with rush-hour commuters, the craft moved slowly through the brackish water. In twenty minutes it would reach the landing on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, deposit its cargo of hundreds, and return for another load. Every morning hundreds of thousands of men and women of every profession and class made their way to the Empire City in this manner over the harbor, or across the Hudson and East Rivers. Every evening the process was reversed as dozens of ferries slowly drained off a sizable portion of Manhattan's workforce, taking them to their homes in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey.
Most of the passengers on the ferry that morning lived permanently outside of Manhattan. But it being June 14 and the beginning of the summer season, some were professional men commuting from summer cottages rented for one or more weeks along the Jersey Shore. Among them was George B. McClellan, Jr., the mayor of New York City and son of the controversial Civil War general of the same name. Commuting to his office at city hall via the Hudson River ferry was an entirely new experience for him. Only yesterday he and his wife had moved into a seaside cottage at Long Branch for the duration of the summer and early fall. The idea had been his wife's, for she was worried that the mounting stress from the day-to-day rigors of office would ruin his health. They could certainly afford it on McClellan's annual salary of fifteen thousand dollars. As an added plus, the move would give them a chance to mix with the finest kind of New York society, since in the words of one guidebook, "The Branch" had been "for many years the most fashionable summer resort in the vicinity of New York." Residents of the area's fine hotels and private cottages, the guide continued, divided their days between "bathing in the morning, driving in the afternoon, and dancing in the evening."
At thirty-nine, McClellan, known as Max to his friends, was one of the youngest men to occupy the mayor's office. Born in late 1865 while his parents were in Dresden during a three-and-a-half-year tour of Europe, he enjoyed an upbringing that was both comfortable and focused. His parents, nurses, teachers, and professors at Princeton instilled in him the habits and attitudes of an aristocrat, or what democratically inclined Americans preferred to call a gentleman. Like others of his class, he attended an Ivy League college (Princeton) where he studied history, art, and languages as well as literature, math, and science. This grooming plus a steady stream of famous personages into the McClellan household from the worlds of business and politics brought him to understand that he belonged to an American nobility, not an inherited status as in Europe, but one secured through the acquisition of wealth and training. With this status, he was informed, came certain obligations, chief among them public service. For Max, of course, there would be an additional requirement of no small magnitude--that he win the presidency and redeem the honor of the father to whom he was so devoted.
Until recently, he had seemed well on his way to doing just that. After a stint as the youngest man to serve as president of the New York City Board of Aldermen followed by several terms in Congress, McClellan's name was bandied about in 1900 as a possible Democratic nominee for vice president, perhaps even president. His youth (he was only thirty-five) and modest national profile caused the boon to fizzle, but his journey to the White House seemed only a matter of time. Three years later the gentleman politician threw caution to the wind and ran for mayor of New York. He hoped the high-profile job would give him the national exposure he needed to secure the Democratic nomination in 1904. Such a scenario seemed firmly grounded in reality, for the current occupant of the White House, Theodore Roosevelt, first gained national recognition as an anticorruption crusader while serving as New York's commissioner of police from 1895 to 1897. Four short years later he had managed to ride that fame, boosted by his "Rough Rider" exploits in Cuba in 1898, into the governor's office, the vice presidency, and, courtesy of an assassin's bullet, the White House.

Copyright© 2003 by Edward T. O'Donnell

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Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy Of The Steamboat General Slocum 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For the thousands of descendants of the General Slocum fire victims, overdue tribute has come. Edward O'Donnell's SHIP ABLAZE serves as a stinging reminder of not only a catastrophe of enormous proportions but of a deliberate and unjust society determined to forget it. While the tragic event of June 15, 1904, in which over 1,000 mostly German-Americans perished, is the star of the book, Mr. O'Donnell's outrage at the people responsible for it and the court system that allowed all but one of the culpable to go free is palpable. There is no point in my retelling the sad story; anyway, I couldn't begin to approach Mr. O'Donnell's engaging and gripping style. But the compelling questions that emerge from the pages deserve consideration. How could human beings who are responsible for the lives and safety of other human beings behave so indifferently to their jobs? A more pressing question: are things any better today? At the root of this book, however, is the inevitable question: Why don't more people--especially New Yorkers--know about this cataclysmic event that happened in the East River? Mr. O'Donnell offers a few convincing reasons: 1) the pervading sexism and xenophobia of the times had only so much sympathy for the over 1,000 deaths of mostly female foreigners; 2) unlike the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, there was no overtly political or socio-economic connection to the disaster; 3) the First World War wiped out any sympathy for anything German; and 4) unlike the glamour, wealth, and fame surrounding the victims of the Titanic, the Slocum victims were poor working class hacks (I believe it is also for this reason that the deaths of almost 100 commuters in the Malbone Street subway wreck of 1918 is all but forgotten too). All things considered, SHIP ABLAZE is a sad book, but not morbid. The accounts of the several ways the victims died (burns, smoke inhalation, trampling, suffocation, crushing, drowning, etc.) in that harrowing hour or so is offset by the many accounts of heroism and selflessness. And now, with the release of this brilliant book, plus several upcoming memorials to mark the 100th anniversary of this calamity, the world will now be reminded of a day that never should have been forgotten.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author has done a wonderful job of bringing to life the fire on board the General Sloucm. He places the disaster in historical, cultural, and political prospective.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the General Slocum tragedy, I thought it appropriate to reflect upon the scope of the catastrophe and comment on Professor O'Donnell's research on the subject. The book was educational and thoroughly interesting - scholarly and meticulously researched. I have read a number of books on multiple casualty incidents in an effort to learn as much as possible about their individual, societal, and political consequences. Professor O'Donnell's discourse covers these issues fully and distinctly with compassion and sensitivity. The purchase price and reading time were wise investments.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ship Ablaze provides an excellent account of this little known tragedy. The story is brought to life for the reader, especially with the specific references to some of the victims and survivors. My great-grandmother died in the tragedy, and I had been looking for a thorough history of the event and its aftermath. For anyone with an interest in the German-American community in NYC in the early 1900's, I highly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gripping? The terrible tragedy and its aftermath is spellbinding, making for sad but fascinating reading. Informative? A must-read book for anyone interested in maritime disasters, New York City history, and the fate of 'Little Germany' in lower Manhattan. Thorough? It is clear from every page that historian O'Donnell did painstaking research before writing this book. The extensive footnotes are not included but can be found in libraries and on the internet.
whitetara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's so hard to really review a non-fiction book. However, this is a wonderful retelling of the tragic voyage of the General Slocum. The author does so well at presenting it almost in a novel format. It really read more like a novel than the series of facts that it actually was. What he did was bring the humanity to history that so few non-fiction writers do. Very good book. Wonderful for anyone interested in early 1900 New York City as well as general maritime history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written account of a castrophe equal to the sinking of the Titanic.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
As we remember the second anniversary of 9-11, we forget that there are also tragedies in history that had a tremendous impact upon people and their culture. The burning of the steamboat General Slocum was a horrific catastrophe that literally devastated the community of 'Little Germany' in Manhattan in 1904. The actual event is ghastly enough when you realize that over a thousand people, mostly women and children, died needlessly. But O'Donnell's depiction of life in Little Germany before the excursion of the Slocum as well as his terrifying narration of events that unfolded on the boat as it burned will leave the reader emotionally spent when finished. O'Donnell draws you into the story so vividly that you personally feel the horror of the people on the General Slocum, the desperation of those survivors looking for their missing family members, and the wretched hopelessness of the families of those who perished. This book is beautifully written and makes what is now an almost forgotten tragedy unforgettable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ship Ablaze is a very moving story of a terrible tragedy. But more than that it is a fascinating window on the New York City of 1904. In the library of maritime disaster books it belongs on the same shelf as Walter Lord's A Night to Remember.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ed O'Donnell captures the grim fate of the steamboat General Slocum by considering the various points of view: captain, minister, newspaper editor, woman who organized the boatride, as well as the families involved. Those who live in New York will be fascinated by the local historical detail of lower eastside life. The parallel between the Slocum and the WTC disaster in terms of human lives lost is shocking! The extensive research, excellent use of photos, maps, diary entries and news reports illuminate the time period and contribute to the unfolding story. In this hot summer of 2003, I could easily imagine the crowd of families eager to board the Slocum for a breezy outing almost one hundred years ago. I could not put this book down!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr O'Donnell's book was riviting and a genuine page turner. This was a tragedy that most of America doesn't know about today and he brought it to us with great detail and tremendous heart. It left me wanting to know more and more about the personal lives the the families and how they could go on after such a sad life experiance. Great Job Mr. O'Donnell!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book paints a picture of an immigrant community devasted by the single greatest dissaster in New York City's history, (until recent events). With both skill and humanity the author gives us a sense of who these people were and the city they inhabited. Its fascinating as history, as drama, and importantly, as a reference point as we attempt to cope with the aftermath of 9/11. Highly reccomended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being a seafaring Captain myself and having read many ship/boat disaster books, this book has definitely become one of my favourites. Mr. O'Donnell does an excellent job of presenting the history surrounding the events that unfolded, giving you feeling that you have the entire story in detail. I would recommend it highly to everyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book tells the story of a horrific steamboat accident in New York City in 1904 which took the lives of over 1,000 people in an extremely short period of time. The author has clearly done extensive research on the subject and brings the agonizing details of the event to life by quoting eyewitness accounts and passenger experiences. One of the most surprising aspects of this story is that it remains largely unknown in the 21st century yet happened in the media capital of the world. It is a very readable book, clear and concise with a wealth of detail. For those interested in stories of historical events this is an excellent read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One approaches historical works with a jaundiced eye. Too often an exciting subject is buried in an accuarial pile of detail. While promised a discovery of sunken treasure, we more often find 'the safe of the Andrea Doria,' an empty closet. Ed O'Donnell has written a page turner. He has concentrated his love of the city on the tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, and produced a literary memorial of real poignancy. While reading we are constantly struck by the enormity of the disaster in the East River and brought to wonder why we knew so little of these events...even well before the sorrow of 9/11. The art of the historian's craft is to bring the past alive in a way that breaths life into the scraps and shreds of evidence that lie about. This book is a masterpiece of social history and a thriller in every sense of the word. Nor is the book detached from the kind of sympathy that is required in the presence of the destruction of a community, Kleinedeutschland, Little Germany, that has too long been under-reported. Most pognant is O'Donnell's tribute to the heroes of June 15, like Jack Watson, tugboat Captain who braved the raging flames in the East River in order to save, along with his crew, 155 of the victims of the fire. This volume does for the Slocum what Arthur Lord did for the Titanic. Anyone who loves New York...any Lutherans...indeed humanists all will be inspired by the treatment given to the greatest loss of life in NYC until 9/11.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I recently finished the book SHIP ABLAZE by Ed O'Donnell and I thoroughly enjoyed the fascinating account of the worst peace time naval disaster in american history. I was able to relate to the victims of the tragedy as my grandparents and great grandparents lived in the same part of New York City as most of them and at the same time. I was also surprised by the depth of Mr. O'Donnell's description of life in New York City at the time of the disaster and found his follow up to today and the annual comemorations of the event to be most interesting. The retelling of this mostly forgotten story is so important for its parallels to today and how so many of us are already behaving as though the tragedy at the Twin Towers is just a faded memory. This book is a must for anyone like myself who has a deep appreciation for our history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be absolutely fascinating. It's well written style holds the reader's interest while telling the story behind the tragedy of 100 years past,an event unknown by most New Yorkers. The facts of the accident are presented in a narrative form, which makes for very easy reading,while describing the horror that occurred on the June day in 1904. It is amazing how this entire event has disappeared from our history books despite the fact that so many New Yorkers lost their lives. I highly reccomend this book to all who have an interest in NYC history,or corruption in government in America at this time as well as those who enjoy reading period pieces.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is fascinating and a compelling read.It covers a little known tragedy in New York City's history and explores the reasons it happened and why it has almost been forgotten.Well worth your time!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book tells more than the story of the General Slocum. It is a terrific evocation of New York of the early 1900s.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is more than the story of the steamship General Slocum but a wonderful evocation of New York in the early 1900s.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up while browsing at my local Barnes and Noble.Its the story of the General Slocum a boat that caught fire and sank in New York City's Hellsgate while carrying passengers on a Sunday School excursion.I had a personal interest in the subject since I had actually met a survivor(who was a friend of my grandfather's.If you are interested in non-fiction this is definitely worth your time.The author does a great job setting the scene (most of the passengers were members of a Lutheran church in Little Germany on the Lower East Side)and explaining the factors that caused the disaster.A 'safety' inspector passed the boat even though the life preservers dated from 1891 (the ship sank in 1904) and were useless,(one of the most chilling passages in the book is when the author explains that most of the people who used the life preservers sank with them because the cork in them had disintegrated into dirt and weighed about 20 pounds) most of the passengers didn't know how to swim, passengers were unable to use the lifeboats because they were wired to the ceiling and the captain had never held a drill so the crew had no idea what to do and was basically useless.The saddest part of the story is that over 1000 people died (mostly women and children, some families were completely wiped out)and today hardly anyone knows about it not to mention the fact that noone was really held accountable.The author does a great job of trying to explain why the General Slocum has been all but forgotten and draws some parallels to the 9/11 tragedy.This book is definitely worth your time--I highly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I lived in New York all my life and knew little about this incident. The author brought this tragic event to life and personalized it for me. I will reread this book many times to be sure. After reading this book I had much the same feeling I had after Sempter 11. Excellent work!