Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published June 11, 1972.
On June 15, 1904 occurred one of the worst steamboat disasters of all time. On that sunny June morning, he New York harbor excursion steamer “General Slocum” caught fire and burned in the East River with a resulting loss of life of 1,021 people.
The “General Slocum” was built in 1891 at Brooklyn to run between New York City and Rockaway Beach. She later ran as an excursion steamer on the Hudson River and Long Island sound, and — at the time — was the largest excursion steamboat out of New York. From time to time, she was chartered by local Ulster County groups and carried excursions out of Rondout Creek.
On the day of the disaster, the “General Slocum” had been chartered by the Sunday School and members of the congregation of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church of New York for an excursion to Locust Grove on Long Island. The vessel left a pier at the foot of East Third Street, Manhattan, shortly before 10 a.m. and proceeded up the East River.
A Cabin Ablaze
Off 97th Street, some of the deckhands on the lower deck observed wisps of smoke coming from the forward part of the vessel. Instead of notifying the captain, they tried to find the cause, apparently thinking they could put out the fire if there was one. They went below and found a cabin ablaze. Coming back on deck, they got the mate who immediately sent word to the captain and started to fight the fire. By this time the fire was beginning to gain momentum and spread.
The East River, at the point where the fire was discovered, is deep and filled with treacherous tidal currents. The captain, William H. Van Schaick, thought his best course would be to reach shallow water and ordered the pilot to head at full speed for North Brother Island, approximately a mile ahead.
The fire, unfortunately, spread rapidly, fanned by a breeze blowing from the north and the steamer’s speed through the water. Many passengers became panic stricken as everyone tried to crowd to the rear of the vessel away from the burning forward part of the steamboat. To add to the dire chain of events surrounding the tragedy, the steamer — on reaching North Brother Island — grounded forward. Her stern, however, where all the passengers were crowded, was still in water 30 feet deep. Many passengers, thinking the entire steamer was in shallow water, jumped overboard and were drowned.
Due to the huge loss of life, the disaster naturally caused a great public furor and led to several investigations. There was strong criticism of the adequacy of the life saving and fire fighting equipment aboard the steamboat. As a result of the investigations, Captain Van Schaick was sentenced to prison. Almost all boatmen felt the captain was unjustly made a scapegoat for the resulting tragedy, instead of the owners of the steamer or the effectiveness of the life saving and fire fighting equipment then required — and the inspections of it by government inspectors.
Captain Van Schaick was severely burned as a result of the fire and his eyesight was permanently damaged by the intense heat of the flames as he vainly sought to direct efforts to combat the holocaust.
When he was sentenced to prison, he was sent to Sing Sing at Ossining. At that time, the State was building what is now Bear Mountain Park operated by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. Some of the inmates of Sing Sing were used for cutting down trees, and other work.
Al Walker, who later was a captain of Cornell tugboats, was then captain of a little steamboat used to carry prisoners back and forth between Sing Sing and the new park. Captain Van Schaick was one of the prisoners who was sent to the park to do what he could. Al told me he would always take Captain Van Schaick into the pilot house and let him steer or do whatever he wanted to do as, like all other steamboatmen of that day, he felt Captain Van should never have gone to prison.
Captain Van Schaick eventually was pardoned by President Taft and later died at the Masonic Home at Utica in 1924. Several members of his family were also steamboatmen. A brother was a captain of steamboats of the Iron Steamboat Company, the steamboat line that ran from New York to Coney Island until 1932. Captain Arthur Van Schaick, who I believe was a nephew of the “General Slocum’s" captain, was a pilot and later captain of the "Chauncey M. Depew’’ of the Hudson River Day Line.
On the ‘Sirius’
Before Captain Van Schaick became captain of the "General Slocum," he had been captain of the steamer “Sirius” of the Iron Steamboat Company. Jack Dearstyne, Sr., who was later captain of a number of Hudson River steamboats, was at that time first mate of the ‘‘Sirius."
Captain Dearstyne later told me that Captain Van Schaick always used to say his one wish was to be captain of New York’s largest excursion steamer. Well, he got his wish and, as it turned out, to his great regret.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
Learn more at the June 8, 2022 lecture by author Edward T. O'Donnell "The 1904 General Slocum Disaster: New York's Deadliest Day before 9/11"
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