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This Day in History, 1904: General Slocum Tragedy

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the General Slocum fire, the worst one-day disaster in New York City before 9/11. For some reason, not many people learn about it when they study history. (On a personal note, it's the central event of my novella "Time Ablaze," which was nominated for the Hugo Award.)

Historian Ed O'Donnell, author of the book SHIP ABLAZE, has a webpage about the Slocum, and I'll quote from it here:

"Ask any New Yorker to name the city’s greatest disaster before September 11, 2001 and invariably they offer the same answer: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. That tragic event garnered international headlines as 146 young immigrant women lost their lives in an unsafe garment factory. Yet even though it is certainly Gotham’s most famous disaster, it runs a distant second to a much larger catastrophe which occurred only seven years earlier. On June 15, 1904, more than 1,000 people died when their steamship, the General Slocum, burst into flames while moving up the East River. It was the second-most deadly fire (after the Peshtigo fire of 1871) and most deadly peacetime maritime disaster in American history."

For more information about the tragedy, see O'Donnell's excellent webpage about the tragedy, The General Slocum Disaster, and also the Wikipedia entry on the General Slocum.


I'd heard of the General Slocum tragedy, but never knew it happened right in the East River, or just how terrible it was. I definitely would have answered Triangle Shirtwaist if asked about NYC's greatest tragedy before reading O'Donnell's page. Thanks for the interesting history, Michael.
I first heard about the General Slocum through you; I think the reason so few people know about it is the same reason so few people know about the plane that hit the Empire State Building: it's tragic in and of itself, but because, unlike the Shirtwaist Factory fire, it had no social impact, there's no historical moment to hang it on or way to make it relevant in the larger tapestry of history.
I wrote an obit a couple years ago for Adella Wotherspoon, who is believed to be the last survivor of Slocum ferry fire. As with most of the obits I write, the research led me to some interesting places, including the book, "Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum" by Ed O'Donnell. It was a fascinating read.
Cool... and tragic.
I have friends who live on the East Side, in old Germantown, (E 85th) they studied the history of the area before moving in and learned about the fire.

I studied the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in college, but not the Slocum.
Fascinating, Michael!

I like to think I know my history but I don't think I've ever heard of this tragedy before. It does make one wonder why it hasn't transferred via the collective memory over all these years like the other tragic events like the Triangle fire.

Maybe it was just early enough that the Progressive political scene (as typified by Teddy Roosevelt) didn't get a grasp on it as a basis to promote change. Perhaps it was too far into the Gilded Age where political economic might still made right.

December 2016

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