Editor's Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article written by George W. Murdock, for the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman newspaper in the 1930s. Murdock, a veteran marine engineer, wrote a regular column. Articles transcribed by HRMM volunteer Adam Kaplan. See more of Murdock's articles in "Steamboat Biographies".
No. 157- General Slocum
Mention of the steamboat “General Slocum” brings to many persons the memory of a great disaster- a catastrophe that has been labeled “the greatest disaster in the steamboat history of the world”; for it was aboard the “General Slocum” that 1,021 persons, bent on a merry-making excursion, met death.
Devine Burtis, Jr., built the wooden hull of the “General Slocum” at Brooklyn in 1891. Her 235 foot keel was laid on December 23, 1890, and she was launched on April 18, 1891. Her over-all length was 255 feet, breadth of hull 37 feet six inches (over her guards she was 70 feet), depth of hold 12 feet six inches. The gross tonnage of the “General Slocum” was listed at 1,284, with net tonnage at 1,013. W.A. Fletcher Company of Hoboken, N.J., built the vertical beam engine which had a cylinder diameter of 53 inches with a 12 foot stroke. She carried two boilers- 23 and a half feet long and nine and a half feet in diameter.
The “General Slocum” was built expressly for the excursion trade, operating between New York and Rockaway Beach in line with the steamboat “Grand Republic,” and she was the first of the large excursion steamboats to adopt the innovation of hardwood finish on her outside joiner woodwork. The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company were the owners of the “General Slocum”- using her as a replacement for the steamboat “Columbia,” a sister ship to the “Grand Republic,” which had been sold to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company during the winter of 1888.
The “General Slocum” and the “Grand Republic” ran on the Rockaway route for several years, and were then placed in the excursion business on the Hudson river and Long Island Sound- being the largest excursion steamboats out of New York.
Then came the tragic event which placed the greatest stain on the pages of steamboat history and caused the “General Slocum” to be remembered with feelings of horror.
On June 15, 1904, the “General Slocum” was chartered by the Sunday School and members of the congregation of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church of New York City for an excursion. A few minutes before 10 o’clock in the morning the “General Slocum” left the recreation pier at the foot of East Third street and started up the East River at a 15 knot clip- it being the plan of the captain to reach Locust Grove, Long Island, the destination of the excursionists, shortly after the noon hour.
When the “General Slocum” reached a point opposite 97th street several of the crew, who were on the lower deck, saw puffs of smoke coming through the seams in the flooring. For some reason that will never be known, the discovery was not immediately communicated to Captain Van Schaick. Some of the deck hands went below and ran into the second cabin- believing they could easily extinguish the fire. They found the place a furnace, and rushed above to notify Mate Edward Flanagan of the blaze. The mate directed the fire apparatus placed in use and in turn notified the captain. Captain Van Schaick signaled Pilot Conkling to proceed at full speed ahead and point the bow of the vessel towards North Brothers Island- which was a good mile ahead.
The wind was blowing from the north and the swift progress of the “General Slocum” caused a strong air-current which fanned the flames and drove tongues of the fire backwards into the faces of the excursionists, who became panic-stricken. Mothers scurried frantically about in an endeavor to collect their families and guide them to a supposed place of safety while the crew turned their efforts to fighting the raging fire which was fast gaining terrifying proportions. People crowded back onto the after decks of the vessel and children were trampled. A policeman named Kelb endeavored to restore order but his efforts were in vain.
It was just 10:20 a.m. when the “General Slocum” was beached at North Brothers Island. When she struck bottom her bow was in four feet of water but her stern, where all the people were crowded, was in approximately 30 feet of water. The instant the vessel grounded many of the terrified passengers, believing they were in shallow water, jumped overboard. Scores of them never came to the surface. To add to the catastrophe the beaching of the vessel caused the stanchions supporting the hurricane deck to collapse under the weight of the milling passengers. Hundreds of unfortunates were hurled downward into the roaring furnace and were instantly burned to death. Later the vessel sunk and many of the bodies were never recovered. In all there were 1,021 people who lost their lives in this great disaster.
The hull of the “General Slocum” was later raised and sold to J.H. Gregory of Perth Amboy, N.J., to be broken up, but was later turned into a coal barge. The coal barge was sold to a Philadelphia company on June 15, 1905, for use on the Delaware river- but neither Mr. Gregory nor the purchasers realized at the time that the sale had been made on the anniversary of the fire.
The converted hull of the “General Slocum,” bearing the name of “Maryland,” was lost off the New Jersey coast in the vicinity of Sandy Hook on December 3, 1911, and was never recovered. The sister ship of the “General Slocum,” the “Grand Republic,” was likewise destroyed by fire- on April 26, 1924, at the foot of West 156 street.
George W. Murdock, (b. 1853-d. 1940) was a veteran marine engineer who served on the steamboats "Utica", "Sunnyside", "City of Troy", and "Mary Powell". He also helped dismantle engines in scrapped steamboats in the winter months and later in his career worked as an engineer at the brickyards in Port Ewen. In 1883 he moved to Brooklyn, NY and operated several private yachts. He ended his career working in power houses in the outer boroughs of New York City. His mother Catherine Murdock was the keeper of the Rondout Lighthouse for 50 years.
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