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July, 2004 - Nr. 7


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NY remembers Slocum
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Three German Sites...
Venus Draws Stargazers

New York remembers the General Slocum disaster

  TWIG - Unexpected tragedy can bring a community together in a way that the daily struggles of city life cannot. Next week, New York City will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the General Slocum disaster, an accident that has slipped into obscurity in recent years but which has not lost its meaning for the German-American community in America’s most populous metropolis.

On June 15, 1904, 1,300 tourists, many of them woman and children from the German-American community in what was then called "Kleindeutschland" ("Little Germany") on the lower East Side of Manhattan, boarded the General Slocum steamboat for a daytrip along the East River. A fire broke out below deck just as the ship reached 90th Street and quickly spread to the upper decks. The ship’s captain and his crew sped up the boat, adding fuel to flames that soon engulfed the vessel. The 3,000 life vests on board were useless. Made of rotting cork, they sank to the river floor, along with more than 1,000 people, many of whom did not know how to swim.

The aftermath of the tragedy unleashed a sentiment in New York City and around the world that questioned the city’s role as the world’s most modern metropolis and laid blame to the captain and crew of the ship, which were under qualified to deal with such a situation. For weeks, newspaper editorials and cartoons focused on the human loss of the tragedy, the hundreds of children who perished while onlookers watched the ship go down so close to land.

The importance of the disaster did not go unrecognized. It ushered in necessary changes in steamboat regulations across the United States. Then-president Theodore Roosevelt appointed a five-man commission to investigate the event, who uncovered countless dangers in the steamboats of the times.

For the German-American community in "Little Germany," the effects were devastating. Because so many in the 800,000-strong community knew someone who became a victim of the attack, it was if a dark cloud had settled upon that part of Manhattan, which had been a haven for German immigrants since the 1840’s. A mass exodus began that saw many of these immigrants relocate to Yorkville on the Upper West Side.

In remembrance of this day — which before the September 11 attacks represented the greatest single loss of human life in the history of the city — organizations and communities in New York City are preparing for a series of special lectures, films, guest engagements, and ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the disaster. The New York Historical Society will host an exhibition on the event, and an annual memorial service will be held at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Queens. A panel discussion with the only remaining survivor of the event will be held at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, where many of the victims were members.

Historian Edward T. O’Donnell, considered an expert on the disaster, will be speaking with National Public Radio about his book "Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum," which was published in May 2003 by Broadway Books.

A CNN interview with O’Donnell on "Newsnight with Aaron Brown," which takes place between 10:00 and 11:00 pm. on June 14, will be broadcast all day on the 100th anniversary of the event on June 15.

On June 16, a History Channel documentary on based on "Ship Ablaze: The General Slocum Disaster" will be broadcast at 8:00 pm.
Republished with permission from "The Week in Germany"


The General Slocum Disaster


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