Prior to 1871, Germany was not a unified nation, but instead a collection of more than three dozen kingdoms and principalities loosely associated through the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, which attempted to coordinate the economies of Europe’s German-speaking peoples. In 1848, civil unrest erupted into outright revolution all across the German Confederation, as middle- and working-class citizens rose up in protest of the oppressive, conservative ruling aristocracy. Conditions were exacerbated by a population explosion coupled with continent-wide crop failures, which led to extensive famine and starvation.
United at first in their dream of a Democratic, unified Germany, the middle-class and working-class revolutionaries ultimately splintered over their end goals in the uprising, and the wealthy and powerful aristocracy was able to crush them. Those with the means to do so fled the country, fearing backlash for their roles in the rebellion. So it came to pass that, for much of the latter half of the 19th century, German people flooded across the Atlantic Ocean and onto America’s shores.
Unlike previous immigrant waves, the Germans who arrived in the United States often had a respectable amount of money, were trained in various lucrative business trades, and were far more well-educated than their contemporary Irish or Italians flowing through New York’s harbor. They therefore were generally quick to bypass the degradation of the city’s brutal slums, flocking deep into the American heartland to places like Texas and Wisconsin, establishing bakeries and breweries and forever transforming their new communities.
Those who chose to stay in New York tended to concentrate themselves in tightly-knit communities, segregated by German State, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side: Prussians in the 10th Ward, people from Baden in the 13th Ward, people from Hessen-Nassau at the border of the 10th, 13th & 17th Wards, Wurttembergers in the 17th Ward, Hanoverians in the 13th Ward, and Bavarians basically anywhere the Prussians weren’t. By 1865, there were more than 57,000 Germans in New York: the most of any city other than Berlin and Vienna.
The Germans were, by and large, hard-working, self-supporting, and lively. Their injection of gaiety into the city’s otherwise straight-laced English/Dutch society was welcomed along with their biergartens and bakeries. With Tompkins Square Park at its center, Kleindeutschland stretched from the Bowery to the East River and north to south for nearly forty blocks.
But the success of this first generation of German immigrants meant that in rather short order, their offspring had the means to pull up their roots in Little Germany and move on, assimilating seamlessly into some of New York’s more prominent middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. As these Germans moved out, they were replaced by Russian and Eastern-European Jews, pushing the neighborhood’s German heritage into further decline.
By the early 20th century, the Lower East Side was little more than a sentimental heritage zone for most of New York’s German-Americans. St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 325 East 6th Street was one of the remaining nuclei of the scattered German community. Since 1888, the parish had chartered an annual pleasure cruise from Manhattan to picnic grounds at Eatons Neck, Long Island. It was an opportunity for families and friends to reunite and to celebrate their shared heritage. 1904 marked the 17th consecutive year of the tradition, and for $350, the church booked passage for its congregants on the steam-powered paddle boat General Slocum.
The General Slocum had been constructed in Brooklyn in 1891, and was plagued by a series of minor disasters almost from the very start. Collisions, near-misses, and multiple groundings on sand bars made the General Slocum a regular figure in the headlines.
Despite its ominous record, however, at 9:30AM on June 15th, 1904, more than 1,400 members of the St. Mark’s parish boarded the General Slocum and set sail north toward Long Island Sound. Shortly after 10:00, when the ship was near 90th Street in the East River, word reached Captain Van Schaick that the ship was on fire. The ensuing hour would prove to be one of the greatest and most shocking tragedies to ever strike New York City.
The 1,400 passengers, mostly women and children, had not been briefed on evacuation procedures and it was later determined that most crew members likewise were never trained in handling emergency situations such as an on-board fire. The mostly-wooden ship was quick kindling and, though he’d ultimately testify that he did so out of fear of spreading the fire to buildings on land, the captain’s decision not to ground the ship or pull into port would prove disastrous. As it continued to sail north along the river, the ship’s flames were fanned by the wind, and within minutes, the entire vessel was ablaze.
Panicked passengers found the ship’s few emergency measures in sorry shape: life vests, which had been left tied to the outer decks since the Slocum’s construction 13 years prior, were rotted through from weather damage and crumbled to the touch. Those that didn’t crumble were desperately tied to children before their mothers threw them overboard in hopes of saving them. Parents could only watch in horror as their babies sank like stones: the life vests were later found to have been filled with sub-par cork and pieces of iron to help them meet legal weight requirements. The lifeboats, if they weren’t rotted through and completely useless, were found to be either chained or even painted down to the deck. Not one was able to be used in a rescue.
It was reported that Captain Van Schaick and many members of his crew fled the boat not long after the fire erupted, leaping onto a passing tug, and abandoning their passengers to their fates. Some tried to jump into the river, but swimming was not a popular past-time for the 19th-century middle class, and few knew how. Weighed down by their heavy woolen clothes, many who jumped were quickly dragged under to drown.
And those who remained aboard suffered perhaps an even more horrifying fate: as the fire ate through the ship’s support columns, the decks pancaked, crushing hundreds of passengers desperately trying to escape the smoke and flames. All told, 1,021 men, women, and children either drowned, suffocated, burned, or were crushed in the disaster. Their bodies washed up on shores all around the northern East River for days afterward. 321 escaped death that day, including 28 of the 30 crew members.
No one in New York’s German community was untouched by the catastrophe. Everyone lost someone: a friend, mother, wife, brother. Even the city’s Italian and Jewish communities felt the effects of the General Slocum disaster, as many second-generation Germans had married into their families. Grief and disbelief loomed over the city for weeks, as funeral after funeral buried the hundreds of victims.
Captain Van Schaick was found guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced to 10 years hard labor at Sing Sing Prison. He would ultimately be pardoned and released by President Taft in 1911. He died a free man in 1927. His tombstone reads “Vindicated.” No other members of the General Slocum’s crew, the ship’s owners, nor the manufacturers of its life vests were found guilty of anything. The ship’s hull was raised from the riverbed and used as a barge until it sank, again, in a storm in 1911.
New York’s German community, already fading, all but disappeared after the disaster. Their cultural heart had been ripped out, and there was no desire to try to recapture its spirit in the years after. In 1946, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church merged with an affiliated parish on the Upper East Side, and its East 6th Street building is now a synagogue. All that remains of the former Kleindeutschland are some German-style buildings and a marble memorial fountain in Tompkins Square Park dedicated to the victims of the General Slocum.
The Tompkins Square memorial was unveiled in 1905, one year after the tragedy, by young Adella Liebenow. She had been 8 months old when the ship went down: the youngest survivor. In January of 2004, she passed away at age 100. No one who sailed aboard the General Slocum now lives to tell the tale. It was the greatest single loss of life in New York’s history until the attacks of September 11th, 2001, yet few today have any knowledge of it. Its legacy lives on in the stringent safety requirement for ships, put in place to ensure such a tragedy would never occur again.