May 08, 2019, 06:27AM

The Burning Decks

North Brother Island, where the Slocum was beached.

South brotherbeach.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

North Brother Island, as seen from its partner, South Brother. Photo: K. Jacob Ruppert

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum, an excursion vessel on the way to Long Island for a church picnic outing, burst into flames in the East River. Over 1000 lost their lives.

Slocum Captain William Van Schaick drove the vessel toward North Brother Island, one of two small islands in the East River between Port Morris, Bronx, and Riker’s Island. Van Schaick’s decision to beach the Slocum on North Brother was dubious; there were closer piers at Port Morris, the southeastern tip of the Bronx. Since there were numerous wooden piers and oil tanks there, some historians say Van Schaick took the only course of action available. More outrageous was the fact that the Slocum wasn’t prepared for any mishap as corrupt inspectors had declared the Slocum seaworthy despite:

—The ship’s six lifeboats were not only tied down but painted to the deck.

—Life belts were nailed to the overhead in rusty wiring and were 13 years old; they’d deteriorated such that the cork had turned to powder, dragging down anyone who wore them to the bottom; some were filled with cast iron.

—Fire hoses were rotten and frayed and burst apart when water was run through them.

—Some of ship’s crew panicked.

Steamboat company officials were tried but not convicted, even though proof was obtained that the owners had bribed the inspectors. Only Van Schaick served any prison time, 3.5 years at Sing Sing. He was pardoned by President Taft in 1912.

North Brother Island, where the Slocum was beached, is now a windswept, barren place visited only by wading and migrating birds and urban explorers who occasionally kayak out to North Brother with the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks; the islands are otherwise legally off limits. North and South Brother are in the East River, east of Port Morris, Bronx and west of Rikers Island.

The islands were first sighted by Europeans in the early 1600s. In 1614 they were claimed for the Dutch West India Company by Captain Adriaen Block, but remained undeveloped for the next 200 years. According to Other Islands of New York City chroniclers Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller, brewery owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert (1867-1939) owned a summer home on South Brother Island from 1897 to 1907. The Colonel later owned the New York Yankees, and his great-grandnephew, K. Jacob Ruppert, took the photos of North Brother seen on this page.

New York City operated Riverside Hospital on North Brother beginning in 1885. In that era, NYC placed typhus, TB, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox victims on North Brother and Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Islands. Riverside was subsequently expanded to accept more and more patients from waves of disease plagues in 1886, 1892 (smallpox), 1893 (typhus), 1903 (TB) and 1916 (polio). Mary Mallon, a housekeeper and cook who carried typhoid (a bacterial disease causing high fever and acute diarrhea) but was unaffected by it, had spread the disease to estimated hundreds, causing anywhere from three to 50 deaths; she resisted capture and eluded investigators off and on between stints at Riverside between 1907 and 1915. In that year the City Board of Health declared her a public menace, and she was sent to North Brother for the remainder of her life. She worked in the hospital laboratory and was occasionally allowed to briefly travel to the mainland. She died in 1938.

Many Slocum victims are buried in Lutheran/All-Faiths Cemetery, a vast expanse in Middle Village, Queens. Most of them were from the Lower East Side, a neighborhood then known as Kleindeutschland: Little Germany. In the years after the tragedy, most of the traumatized German-Americans in the neighborhood moved away. Only a few German inscriptions on buildings, such as Freie Bilbliothek u. Leshalle (free library and reading room) on the Ottendorfer Library at 2nd Ave. and E. 9th St.) are reminders of Kleindeutschland.

The All-Faiths Cemetery Slocum monument was unveiled in 1905, exactly one year after the fire, by the youngest survivor, two-year old Adella Liebenow, who lived until 2004 . The inscription on the front of the stone is repeated in German on the back.

The following year, 1906, a smaller monument was erected in Tompkins Square Park (between Aves. A and B and E. 7th and 10th Sts., just north of Kleindeutschland): a small nine-ft. stele made of pink Tennessee marble, featuring a relief picturing two children looking seaward, sculpted by Bruno Louis Zimm. Funds were provided by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. In 1991, it was restored by the NYC Parks Department with funds from SUNY-Maritime College in Throgs Neck, Bronx. The children are described: “They were earth’s purest, children young and fair.”

Frederick MacMonnies’ equestrian statue of General Henry Warner Slocum (1827-1894) can be found on Plaza Street East at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. Slocum, a West Point graduate, was commissioned a colonel of volunteers in the Union Army after the Civil War broke out. He commanded forces at Bull Run and Gettysburg and commanded a corps of Sherman’s army in the March to the Sea. He practiced law in Brooklyn after the war, and served in the House of Representatives from 1869-1873.

MacMonnies’ statue was installed in 1905, a year after the steamboat tragedy.

photo: Shaun O’Boyle

There’s one more story about the General Slocum tragedy. Initially fireboat Zophar  Mills pursued the Slocum as the doomed ship steamed toward North Brother. Another fireboat, the Abram S. Hewitt, initially stopped at the E. 67th St. pier to pick up New York City Fire Department Chief Edward F. Croker. The Hewitt was unable to arrive until the Slocum had beached at North Brother.

The fireboat, named for NYC mayor Abram Stevens Hewitt (1822-1903) was built by New York Shipbuilding in Camden, NJ and launched the year the mayor died; she served in the NYC fireboat fleet until 1958. It was the last coal-burning fireboat in operation. Today the Abram S. Hewitt, one of the last links to the burning of the General Slocum, is sinking in the Rossville Boatyard in Staten Island.

A common thread runs through the General Slocum fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, and the Malbone Street Wreck of 1918. These events are emblematic of the indifference to life and limb that US business had in that era. The Slocum had worthless safety devices; the shirtwaist factory owners callously locked the doors to prevent its immigrant workforce from leaving work early or stealing; and Brooklyn Rapid Transit responded to a strike by using novices as motormen. Today, dangerous working conditions persist nationwide despite more governmental strictures, and there are still sweatshops.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


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