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New York City (NYC)
General Slocum Fire - 1904

General Slocum Fire
Photo Credit: NYPL.org

On the morning of June 15, 1904, more than 1300 passengers (mostly women and children) boarded the General Slocum ferry to enjoy an outing to Long Island's northern shore, Locust Point for an annual picnic. General Slocum, built in 1891, was a side-wheel passenger boat chartered by the St. Mark's Lutheran Church. Within thirty minutes of its departure, while on the Hudson River, a fire broke out on the lower decks of the ferry. The conflagration destroyed the ship within fifteen minutes and many of the victims either burned to death or drowned. The fire spread so quickly that rescue boats attached to the ferry's sides were burned before passengers could get to them. A total of 1,026 people died on that day, making it one of the deadliest disasters in United States history. The disaster would also have a lasting effect on the German community of Kleindeutschland.

The investigation that fallowed the disaster discovered many safety violations. Additionally, the life boats were faulty and crew members were untrained in handling fire emergencies. Many wondered why Captain Van Schaick did not steer the boat back to the shore after the fire was discovered. According to Van Schaick, it was dangerous because of the gas tanks and lumber yards near the shore. However, many speculated that it was because of insurance reasons. On January 27, 1906, Captain William Van Schaick was sentenced to ten years in prison for criminal negligence, but was later pardoned in 1911 by President Taft. The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company and its director Frank Barnaby came under scrutiny as well.

Not a single member of the Little German community was left unaffected by this disaster. Some members were devastated, having lost entire families in the fire. Those who did not lose family members lost close friends. After the incident, there was a sharp increase in suicides in Kleindeutschland and families began to move away. As the German population declined, many Jewish families settled down around the same area of the Lower East Side.

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