Why the World Forgot the Greatest NYC Disaster Before 9-11

Roundup: Talking About History

Philip Dray, an historian and co-producer, with Hank Linhart, the chairperson of media arts at Pratt Institutue, of "Fearful Visitation: New York's Great Steamboat Fire of 1904"; in Newsday (June 15, 2004):

A city still determining how best to memorialize the terror attacks of 9/11 may find special meaning in today's 100th anniversary observance of the worst previous disaster in New York City's history: the burning of the steamboat General Slocum in the East River on June 15, 1904, which killed 1,021 people.

The Slocum tragedy challenged the city's ability to adequately respond to an emergency, decimated the Lower East Side's German-American community, and brought an outpouring of public grief and several official inquiries. Yet by the end of the 20th century the incident had been almost entirely forgotten.

Examining why the Slocum has faded from consciousness forces us to ponder the way history works - the reasons we remember some things, but not others. Proportionate to the city's population, the tragedy was actually of greater magnitude than the attack on the World Trade Center. Almost all the victims on the General Slocum came from one tightly knit ethnic neighborhood, Kleindeutschland; those who died at the World Trade Center hailed from all over the region, indeed from all over the world. So the pain of the Slocum fire and its aftermath was felt far more locally.

Nonetheless, notes historian Kenneth Jackson, "Just as the people at the World Trade Center were innocent victims who took a hit for us all, I think in some ways so did the passengers on the General Slocum."

The steamboat, carrying mostly women and children on a Sunday school picnic, had none of the glamor or hubris of the Titanic, the "unsinkable" ship that sank in April 1912. It also lacked the kind of social and political context that has made memorable New York's other great catastrophic fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 1911. Like the Slocum, the Triangle fire was blamed on corporate negligence and callousness, and the dead, similarly, were mostly young immigrant women. But the Triangle fire, where far fewer perished than aboard the Slocum, is remembered for stirring public outrage over unsafe factory conditions.

Certainly another cause of the Slocum's slippage from memory was the anti-German sentiment that swept New York at the time of the First World War. When, as Slocum historian Edward O'Donnell has said, Germans became "unsympathetic characters," many German Americans acted to hasten their assimilation into American society. The surnames adorning shop awnings along Avenue A - once known as "Deutsch Broadway" - were quickly anglicized. This bias would of course only deepen with the coming of the Second World War.

The size and density of New York City, and the competitive nature of life here, has often kept residents focused on the future, not the past. And because the Slocum tragedy was so devastating to one specific community, it may have simply been too painful to call to mind. Many of the residents of Kleindeutschland moved away. Although a survivors' association carried on for several decades, its numbers gradually dwindled until, by the late 1970s, the only monument to the victims in Manhattan, a small obelisk in Tompkins Square Park, was filthy with neglect and almost indecipherable....

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