Dozens gathered Saturday at All Faiths Cemetery in Queens to honor the more than 1,000 people who died in the General Slocum steamboat disaster on June 15, 1904.
The passenger steamer was packed with German immigrants — mostly women and children — during an East River cruise when it caught fire, forcing many to jump overboard.
The Slocum disaster was widely considered the worst in New York State history before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The tragedy had a lasting effect on New York’s German immigrant community, once largely based on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what was then known as Little Germany, or Kleindeutschland.
“When guests of the German Consulate ask us about German immigration to the U.S. and to New York, we often refer to this accident,” said Julian Jahnz of the German Consulate in New York City. “We explain to our countrymen that the disaster of that day contributed to the end of Little Germany in downtown New York and the German community as we knew it until then.”
St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, central to the German immigrant population in 1904, rented the General Slocum on June 15, 1904, for an annual excursion celebrating the end of the Sunday school year, according to the Queens Historical Society. The ship departed from the East Third Street Pier and cruised up the East River toward the North Shore of Long Island.
The day ended in tragedy when a fire broke out below deck and quickly spread. A series of ill-fated decisions by the captain, William Van Schaick, helped stoke the flames, as he raced to find a place to run the boat ashore.
The more than 1,300 passengers soon found the life vests aboard were made of rotten cork, and the lifeboats and rafts had been painted and wired in place and couldn’t be freed in time. The boat was finally grounded, partially submerged in the East River, at North Brother Island, according to the Queens Historical Society.
The disaster led to many reforms in boating safety, said Daniel C. Austin, chairman of the board of All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, which has been holding the memorial event since the early 1980s.
The federal government investigated and indicted seven people in the disaster, with Van Schaick being the only one to serve time in prison. Van Schaick was sentenced in 1906 to 10 years of hard labor in prison, but was pardoned by President William Howard Taft in 1911.
“It stresses the importance of safety on the water,” Austin said of the annual memorial for the Slocum disaster. “By keeping this alive, and never forgetting that this is the largest disaster in New York City prior to 9/11, we don’t want people to forget what can actually happen with boater safety.”
Saturday’s service drew about 70 people. Austin said 90 percent of the Slocum victims are buried at All Faiths Cemetery.