Long before concrete, the highways of the globe were water, and the crafts that glided through them brought people and goods to new markets, new opportunities, and new worlds. The modern use of passenger and commercial ships swung open doors of transport, commerce, and tourism, but like any opportunity there was chance for catastrophe. Thus our maritime history is dotted with disasters and memorials to those lost, and now often forgotten. Here are five maritime disasters lost to time, and the obscure monuments preserving their memory.
P.S. GENERAL SLOCUM
The P.S. General Slocum Before the Disaster (via National Archives General Slocum Disaster)
Standing inside New York City’s Tompkins Square Park is a quiet nine-foot tall fountain in pink Tennessee marble carved with a relief of two children looking over the water, alongside an inscription reading "They were Earth's purest children, young and fair." Additional inscriptions of “In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum June XVMCMIV” and “Dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies the year of our Lord MCMVI” reveal that the monument is a memorial to over 1,000 lives lost on the East River. What should have been an afternoon excursion instead became a tragedy that up until the attacks of September 11, 2001, was the deadliest peacetime disaster in American history.
On June 15, 1904, over 1,300 excited passengers boarded the excursion ferry boat P.S. General Slocum that was docked at a pier on Third Street for the purpose of spending the day on Long Island's North Shore. The boat had been chartered by the St. Mark's Lutheran Church in the East Village, and the passengers, all members of the tightly knit community of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), were looking forward to spending the day on their annual picnic. As the boat departed the dock, flags waved in the breeze and bands played as everyone on board, including nearly 300 children under the age of ten, waved their goodbyes, and Captain William Van Schaick, a captain with a perfect safety record, began to guide the boat and its passengers into the East River.
This idyllic atmosphere was shattered as the boat approached 97th Street. Members of the crew noticed smoke rising from under the wooden deck and upon running below to investigate, found themselves confronted with what one crew member described as “a blaze that could not be conquered.” Prior to the excursion, the boat had been cleared by the fire inspector as being in good condition. However, no fire drills were ever conducted and the fire hoses and life jackets had fallen into disrepair. Van Schaick attempted to speed the boat to North Brother Island, hoping to beach the boat sideways, allowing passengers to escape, but the winds only fanned the flames.
Soon the entire boat was engulfed in an uncontrollable burn. Mothers and children flew into panic and hurled themselves overboard, with some becoming trapped in the massive paddle wheel, while others clustered together hoping for rescue, only to be overcome by the fire.
The P.S. General Slocum burning (via Wikimedia)
North Brother Island was the site of Riverside Hospital, used for the care of typhoid among other diseases, and the staff watched as the burning vessel approached their shores and prepared their fire systems for the inevitable. Approximately 25 feet from the island, Van Schaick beached the Slocum on its side, and the staff of Riverside Hospital dashed into the water to save those still trapped on board.
However, the fire was too intense, and they were only able to throw debris into the water for people to cling on to. Within an hour, 150 bodies were laid across North Brother Island, and by time the horrific incident came to a close, 1,021 people were dead. The boat was carried away by the current before hitting land at Hunts Point in the Bronx, where it would remain for several weeks. The crew and safety precautions were scandalized in the press, and Van Schaick, escaping the boat blinded and burned, was sentenced to ten years in prison (he would be pardoned four years later).
Victims of the P.S. General Slocum disaster washing up onto the shores of North Brother Island (via Wikimedia)
The wreck of the P.S. General Slocum (via Wikimedia)
The Slocum Memorial Fountain in Tompkins Square Park was dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and installed in 1906. Now faded from exposure to the elements, this monument stands as a reminder of a greatly forgotten disaster that shook New York City, and devastated an entire population of German immigrants which would never recover from their loss.
Slocum Memorial Fountain (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
The S.S. Eastland in the days before the disaster (via Detroit Publishing Company)
Standing along the Chicago River where West Wacker Drive and North LaSalle Street connect is a black plaque, approximately five feet tall, lost amid the bustling city around it. Although it does not announce itself to those passing by, the plaque tells those who stop of a horrific accident on the river that was big enough to be coined by some as “Chicago’s own Titanic,” and happened while the passenger ship S.S. Eastland was only feet from dry land.
On the morning of July 24, 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company of Hawthorne (present-day Cicero) were boarding the S.S. Eastland for a Lake Michigan cruise to Michigan City, Indiana, for their fifth annual employee picnic. The ship docked at the Clark Street Bridge that morning was modified in previous years, fitted with additional lifeboats and life rafts following changes in maritime law after the sinking of the Titanic, but maintained its slender design for speed. Its nickname was “The Greyhound of the Lakes.”