North Brother Island was the site of one of New York’s most costly human tragedies. The General Slocum Disaster occurred on June 15, 1904. This tragedy is much less well known compared to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, and the Titanic Disaster of April 15, 1912. Perhaps these two shocking events happening within a year focused people’s attention elsewhere. But the aftermath of the sinking of the PS Slocum radically altered the German-American community of the Lower East Side forever. Chartered by the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church for $350.00, the passengers came mostly from the German-American community of the Lower East Side. Excitement and anticipation filled the air — for the passengers, this would be a fun-filled day outside of the city, and as the ship departed, it would be enjoyable to watch the shoreline as the ship made its way out to the North Shore of Long Island. As the ship made its way up the East River, it was engulfed in flames within a half hour of leaving its port. The burning ship was run aground on North Brother Island, deemed by its captain to be the best choice out of a number of poor ones—that part of the river was lined with lumber yards and gas mills, making no easy choice for the beleaguered captain.
Most of the passengers were women and children. There have been varying accounts of how the fire started, but it spread rapidly within a half hour of leaving dock around 9 a.m. The panic was horrific among the passengers as they faced death by drowning or being burned alive on the ship. It was a safe bet that most of the passengers could not swim, and the period clothing of the day worked against them. For days afterward, bodies would wash ashore. Only 321 passengers survived from a total of 1,358 passengers. The final death count totaled 1,021. The next largest death toll in the United States would come decades later with 2,974 dead from 9/11.
Later, the captain would be tried and convicted when it was found numerous safety measures and devices had been overlooked on the ship. Fire hoses were rotted, lifeboats had been wired in place, and even the life vests were decayed to the point of uselessness, dragging poor souls beneath the river when they jumped from the burning boat. On January 27, 1906, justice was meted out to Captain Van Schaick by a jury of the United States Circuit Court. He was found guilty of criminal negligence that he had failed to maintain the fire drills required by law. Judge Thomas, the presiding judge, sentenced Van Schaick to 10 years at hard labor. And what happened to the company that owned the ship and the director? The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company and Frank Barnaby escaped justice.
Van Schaick would serve only part of his sentence at Sing Sing prison. He received a pardon (through the efforts of his wife) from President William Howard Taft in 1911.
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