The Flames Of Hell Gate

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June in Middle Village—a time of flowers. Along block after block in that quiet section of Queens in New York, front yards glow with their colors. Roses by the thousands, the tens of thousands. And in the Lutheran Cemetery on the community’s southern fringe, sixty-one red carnations, one for each of the unidentified dead in New York’s worst disaster. Their anonymous bodies lie together in what is known as the Great Grave. Nearby are rows of headstones with the names of more than nine hundred others who died with them, by fire or drowning, one bright June day in 1904.

The wreath of carnations is set in place each year, in somber remembrance by those who managed to live through the disaster. Nineteen survive by latest count, but some live far from Middle Village—in Florida, in Hawaii—and all are growing old. The seventy-fifth anniversary, held in 1979, may prove to have been their last significant reunion. But many more of us remember the event, or know of it as part of family legend, for thousands of New Yorkers were involved in one way or another in the rescue effort and its sad aftermath. Most of us may never visit the Slocum plot in the cemetery or even see the flowers of Middle Village, yet we seldom live through mid-June without remembering the General Slocum .

Built for the profitable run to Rockaway Beach, the Slocum , as people called her, was a handsome wooden steamboat larger than most in the excursion trade: 264 feet long with a 37-foot beam, side paddles 31 feet in diameter, and three commodious open decks. At her launching on April 18,1891, and again at the trial run on June 25, the guest of honor was the notable whose name she bore—Henry Warner Slocum, a major general in the Civil War and later a three-term member of Congress from Brooklyn.

That August 12, after being in service less than two months, this new pride of the excursion fleet had its first mishap when a girl was crowded off the deck and drowned; the next day the boat ran aground at Rockaway Inlet; just two days after that it collided with another ship while docking in the Hudson River. Over the next dozen years there were eight other such accidents, enough to prompt men in shipping circles to consider the Slocum an unlucky vessel. Almost as if to dare bad luck to do its worst, her captain and owners neglected her safety equipment, year after year. The lifeboats were lowered so seldom—perhaps never—that coat upon coat of paint had frozen them to their chocks. There were more than-enough life jackets aboard, but they were not easy to geLat and had become so rotten that few of the»i could have kept even a small child afloat. The firhpse, of inferior grade, had also rotted and could no, longer sustain pressure from the ship’s pumps. The deck hands were recruited off the streets and were never adequately trained in emergency procedures. In short, the Slocum , in her fourteenth season, was a prime candidate for desEructioriTand boarding her carried a terrible risk.

 

With the pleasure-seeking public, however, she remained very popular, and people mounted her gangplank without the slightest misgivings. So it was on the morning of June 15,1904, when well over a thousand residents of “Little Germany,” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, boarded the Slocum at the Third Street pier for the annual outing of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The weather was ideal—warm, bright sun and refreshing wind out of the north. The ship recently had been overhauled, and a coat of fresh paint bolstered the illusion of safety. Many in the festive crowd, moreover, knew Captain William Van Schaick from previous outings and had full confidence in his seamanship. Some also knew one or both of the pilots, Edward Van Wart and young Edwin Weaver. What possible reason could there be for apprehension?

 

The church social committee had sold 982 tickets, mostly to women; the fifteenth was a Wednesday, no holiday for working husbands. There was no charge for the small children, more than 400 of them, who brought the total boarding count to 1,358. At about half-past nine the ropes were cast off and, with the band playing “Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” and bright pennants snapping in the breeze, the Slocum got under way, bound for Locust Point, a popular picnic spot at the western end of Long Island Sound.

There was plenty of room; the ship’s certified capacity was 2,500, and on at least one occasion 4,700 people had crowded aboard. As mothers settled themselves on the long benches and children explored the novelty of a playground afloat, the band, on the rear promenade deck, struck up a lively march, “Unser Kaiser Friedrich,” and followed with the “Poet and Peasant Overture.” From the galley came the pleasant aroma of chowder being prepared for lunch. On either bank, and on the East River islands, were landmarks to point out and argue over: what church does that steeple belong to? is that handsome old house really Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence? Crew members on passing vessels exchanged waves and calls with the children along the Slocum railing.