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Jun 15, 2004 8:41 am

General Slocum Centennial

One hundred years ago today, the steamboat General Slocum had ended its excursion up the East River on the way to Long Island Sound in a nightmarish blaze that killed more than 1,000 people. It was the City's first Titanic-size disaster, 8 years before that ill-fated North Atlantic vessel hit an iceberg.

Like the Titanic, the tragedy has been immortalized in celluloid. It was"Manhattan Melodrama," the 1934 film directed by Woody S. Van Dyke, that had etched upon the silver screen the fate of General Slocum. That movie was preceded by a 1915 silent depiction,"The Regeneration," director Raoul Walsh's first feature film. More recently,"Fearful Visitation" has debuted, a documentary exploring the nature of the disaster. (A History Channel documentary on General Slocum is scheduled for tomorrow night; it features historian Edward O'Donnell, author of Ship Ablaze.)

The New York Historical Society reminds us that the disaster devastated the city's large German-American community, which had settled on the lower east side, in a section that became known as Kleindeutschland. The steamship had embarked on a day-long excursion, with many women and children of German extraction; a fire began on board as the ship passed Roosevelt Island and quickly consumed the wooden vessel, killing an estimated 1,021 people. New York City had suffered the single greatest day of lives lost prior to the World Trade Center attack.

O'Donnell suggests that the Slocum tragedy slipped into a kind of collective unconscious in the years after World War I and World War II, as mainstream American culture demonized its German citizens. O'Donnell's book, which was published last June, has begun a necessary process of historical recollection. A General Slocum Memorial still stands in Tompkins Square Park.

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