LIAM NOLAN looks back on some major tragedies that happened on water, in which many lives were lost. In part one of his new series he tells how over 1,000 passengers perished after they boarded the PS General Slocum innocently hoping to enjoy a family picnic day out …


It was Wednesday the 15th of June 1904, and a perfect day for a picnic. Sunshine lit up the city of New York, and a breath of a breeze made wavelets on the waters of the harbour and the rivers.

The crowd on the quayside was excited. Mostly women and children, they were from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an area known as Little Germany/Klein Deutschland. Over 300 of the children were under the age of 10.

The ship at the recreation pier at Third Street was the paddle steamer General Slocum, named after a Union Army general and New York congressman. She was licensed to carry 2,500 passengers.

Her owners described her as “the largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York.” But the 13-year-old vessel had a dark history that none of its passengers that day knew about.

Captained by William Van Schaick, who had been a sailor for decades, she was due to take the parishioners of Saint Mark’s Lutheran Evangelical Church for their annual picnic at Locust Grove Picnic Ground at Eaton’s Neck on Long Island’s North Shore.

As the passengers boarded the ship, a German band on deck played songs that the grown-ups and the children sang. The kids screamed and shouted and waved small flags. Their mothers stowed their picnic baskets and hampers, and kept an eye on the children in case any of them wandered into danger.
The scheduled time for making the journey to Locust Grove was approximately two hours. But the General Slocum never made it on that June Wednesday.

The white-painted vessel was a side-wheeler passenger ship of 1,284 gross registered tonnage. Each of her two big paddle wheels was 31 feet in diameter. And she had two tall, medium yellow funnels amidships, one on each side.

Built in Brooklyn for the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, she was 264 feet long, with a beam of 37.5 feet, and drew just over 12 feet. She was constructed of white oak and yellow pine. With a crew of 22, the General Slocum could work up a speed of 16 knots, the equivalent of eighteen-and-a-half miles an hour.

But, as mentioned above, there was a dark side to the ship’s history. An official report said the ship “has been in almost constant misfortune since a time shortly after her launching. No other vessel in the harbour has nearly as long a record of accidents as she, and she has cost her owners thousands of dollars at various times for repairs, and for hauling her off some bar on which she had lodged …

“The officers of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company have frequently been up before the authorities for overcrowding the Slocum. Almost every year special men were detailed to watch her, and charges against her were often made…”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own