In case you ask New Yorkers, besides the bombing of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001, what was the biggest disaster in New York City history, most would say the Triangle Shirtwaist Factor Fire of 1911, that killed 141 people, mostly girls. However, undoubtedly the worst tragedy ever to take place in New York City was the currently abandoned 1904 General Slocam paddle vessel disaster, in which more than 1000 German people, mostly female and children, perished in an accident that certainly could have been prevented.Starting in the 1840’s, tens of thousands of German immigrants started flooding the lower east side of Manhattan, which is now known as Alphabet City, but what was subsequently called the Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.
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Just in the 1850’s alone over 800,000 Germans came into America, and by 1855, New York City had the third largest German population of any city in the world.The German immigrants were different than the Irish immigrants who, due to the Irish potato famine in Ireland, were emigrating to New York City in a quick pace throughout the middle portion of the 19th century. Whereas the Irish had been mostly lower-class laborers, the Germans were better educated and possessed skills that made them obtain a higher rung on the economic ladder than did the Irish. Over half the bakers in New York City were of German descent, and most cabinet makers in New York City were German, or of German descent. Germans were also quite active in the construction business, which at the time was very rewarding, because of all of the big buildings being constructed in new york during the mid and late 1800’s.Joseph Wedemeyer, Oswald Ottendorfer and Friedrich Sorge were New York City German-Americans who were extremely active in the production and growth of trade unions. In New York City, German-American clubs, that were called Vereins, were highly involved in politics. Ottendorfer owned and edited the Staats-Zeitung, the biggest German-American paper in the city. He became such a force in politics, in 1861, he was instrumental, through his German Democracy political club, in getting New York City Mayor Fernando Wood elected for his second term. In 1863, Ottendorfer triggered another German, Godfrey Gunther, to triumph Wood as mayor.Small Germany reached its summit in the 1870’s. It then encompassed over 400 blocks, comprised of six paths and forty streets, running south from 14th Street to Houston Street, and by the Bowery east to the East River. Tompkins Square and it park was think about the epicenter of Little Germany. The playground was called the Weisse Garten, where Germans congregated every day to talk about what was important to the lives and livelihoods.Avenue B was known as the Broadway, where almost every building comprised a first floor shop, or even a workshop, marketing every type of commodity that was desired by the German populace. Avenue A has been know for the beer gardens, oyster saloons and various grocery stores. In Little Germany there were also sporting clubs, libraries, choirs, shooting clubs, factories, department stores, German theatres, German schools, German churches, and German synagogues for the German Jews.Starting around 1880, the wealthier Germans started moving out of New York City to the suburbs. And from the turn of the 20th Century, the German population in Little Germany had shrunk to around 50,000 people, still a sizable amount for any cultural neighborhood in nyc.On June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th Street charted the paddle boat General Slocum, for the sum of $350, to take members of its congregation to its yearly picnic, celebrating the conclusion of the college year. In a few minutes after 9 a.m., more than 1300 individuals boarded the General Slocum. The General Slocum, possessed by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, was named for Civil War officer and New York Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. It was constructed by W. & A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was a sidewheel paddle boat powered with a single-cylinder, surface condensing vertical beam steam engine having 53 inch bore and 12 foot stroke. Each wheel had 26 paddles and was 31 feet . Practically from the day of its launch in 1891, the General Slocum suffered one mishap after another. Several tugboats were required to haul the General Slocum back into the water.1894 was an exceptionally bad year for the General Slocum. On June 29th, the General Slocum was coming from the Rockaways with 4700 passengers aboard. Suddenly, it struck a sandbar so tough, that her electric generator blew out. In August, during a terrible rain storm, the General Slocum ran a second time, now around Coney Island. The passengers had to be transferred to another ship so as to make their way back home. The next month the General Slocum hit the trifecta as it collided with the tug boat R. T. Sayre in the midst of the East River. In this event, the General Slocum’s steering was seriously damaged, and it had to be repaired. The General Slocum was accident free until July of 1898, when the General Slocum collided with the Amelia near Battery Park.On August 17, 1901, The General Slocum was carryingout, what was described as”900 drunk Patterson Anarchists.” Suddenly, some of the passengers started to riot. Others tried to physically take charge of the boat, by storming the bridge. However the crew fought the rioters away and could keep control of the ship. When the captain docked in the police pier, 17″anarchists” were arrested. The boat was unable to be freed, therefore its passengers needed to camp outside the whole night until reinforcements could arrive at the next morning. The captain of this ship in that episode was none other than Captain William H. Van Schaick, the same man who would be the chief officer of the General Slocum on its final voyage.On June 15, 1904, about 15 minutes after the General Slocum left the pier at East Third Street, it had been even with East 125th Street. At this point, Captain Van Schaick was informed by one of his team that a fire had begun at the Lamp Room, at the forward section of the boat. The fire was likely ignited by a discarded cigarette or a match, and it was obviously fueled from the straw, oily rags, and blossom oil strewn around the space. The Captain was told that there was a fire on board a couple of minutes earlier with a 12-year-old boy, however, Captain Van Schaick did not feel the boy. Other folks on board stated the fire had begun almost simultaneously in many places, such as a paint filled with flammable fluids, and a cabin full of gasoline.