(On June 15th, 1904) just before 10 o’clock on a morning of glorious sunshine, the paddle-wheel steamboat General Slocum churned into view just in front of where we’re sitting. As long as a city block, her three tiers of open deck were dazzling in a fresh coat of white paint. A band was playing gaily on the topmost deck, and more than a thousand holidaymakers thronged the rails, all in their Sunday best, even though it was a Wednesday. For their much-anticipated annual Sunday School picnic, the parishioners of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on East Sixth Street had chartered a cruise from the Third Street pier to Locust Grove, out beyond Oyster Bay on Long Island Sound.
Being that it was a workday, the passengers were mostly women and children; being that they came from St. Mark’s, they were mostly German immigrants. In 1904 their Lower East Side neighborhood was still known as Little Germany, though the promise of cleaner streets and better amenities had already lured many of their more successful neighbors uptown to the fast-growing German enclave of Yorkville.
As the General Slocum passed the lighthouse at the northern tip of Blackwell’s Island—now Roosevelt Island, which you can see from our bench if you look to the right—a little boy tugged at the sleeve of a deckhand. “Mister, there’s smoke coming up one of the stairways.” Yeah, sure there is, thought the deckhand, but he went below to check as the boat veered gently to starboard past Ward’s Island, and the pilots concentrated on the tricky currents of Hell Gate.
Seven minutes later the voice of the first mate thundered up through the speaking tube into the pilothouse. “The ship’s on fire!” As the captain emerged he was driven back by a wall of flame. Retreating into the pilothouse, he ordered the ship full steam ahead, aiming for North Brother Island off the Port Morris section of the Bronx, just a mile away. When the blazing ship hit the beach, the top two decks collapsed.