Sinking of the steamboat General Slocum


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We receive quite a number of amazing donations here at The Mariners’ Museum, but every now and then we receive something this has such an amazing and touching story that we can’t help but be affected.  One such recent donation is an one cent token from the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, donated by Robert Zipse.  This token, and others like it, were used to purchase goods while on one of the Knickerbocker Company vessels.  What makes this particular token (pictured below) so special is the sentimentality and meaning attached to it by the man whose life was forever changed by a day that was supposed to be filled with joy and fun.

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On June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church chartered the Knickerbocker Steamboat General Slocum for their annual excursion and picnic to Locust Grove.  St. Mark’s was located in area of Manhattan known as Little Germany as there was a large population of German immigrants in the neighborhood, including many who had only recently arrived.  As this excursion was on a weekday, it was mostly attended by women and children.  This included William F. Zipse (pictured below in 1906) who at the time was 15 years old, his mother Sophie Zipse (pictured below on the day of her wedding) and William’s five siblings, Sophia (17), Mary (13), Louise (10), Helen (3) and Albert (1).

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General Slocum left the pier at 9:40 a.m., with the energy and excitement of the 1358 passengers high.  Rain clouds that had threatened the excursion earlier in the morning had passed and a fast tide was helping the ship to make good time through the water.  It was only twenty minutes later, as Slocum was approaching the treacherous area of water known as Hell Gate that a problem was first noticed.  A fire had broken out in the forward cabin, which was being used as a lamp room.  Faulty equipment and lack of effort to help the passengers led to a chaotic and disastrous scene aboard the boat.  Nearby boats came to the aid of the passengers, without which the death toll would have been much higher.

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It only took about 20 minutes from the time the fire began to creep through the boat to when the boat was beached on North Brother Island, but the pain and suffering of those involved would last much longer.  In total (according to the 1904 report by the US Government), 955 people had died, including William Zipse’s five siblings, Sophia, Mary, Louise, Helen and Albert.  William managed to survive because he fell onto one of the tugboats that came to help, most likely jostled off the boat by fellow passengers.  The fall broke his leg, but he was safe.  William’s mother, Sophie, managed to survive by holding onto driftwood and was found the following day on the East River near the Battery.

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While there were many that could have been blamed for the incident, only Captain William Van Schaick was convicted of a crime.  The inspector who had passed the ship for that season, Henry Lundberg, was fired by President Roosevelt, but was not convicted of any crime.  Van Schaick was found guilty of criminal negligence and was sentenced to 10 years in Sing Sing prison.  He served only about three years of his sentenced as he was pardoned by President Taft, most likely due to his age (he was over 70 at this point).  While Van Schaick, as the Captain of General Slocum, was no doubt partially responsible for the diasaster, the fact that no one else was convicted of any crimes, including the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, means that justice was never fully served.

What was supposed to be a pleasure cruise had turned into a nightmare that would change the face of Little Germany in Manhattan.  The funerals went on for over a week, with those remaining trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.  Many moved away from Little Germany to try and escape the painful memories and start over.  In many cases, the disaster wiped out entire families.  As for the Zipse family, William’s father, Frederick, was so devastated by the loss of his children the he was unable to continue working and died in 1917 from cancer.  Sophie lived until 1940, when she was buried with her husband and the five children who perished in the disaster.  As for William, he was an ambitious man and therefore was able to pick up the pieces and carve out a fine life for himself and his family, but he never forgot.  When the disaster was over, William still had two of the Knickerbocker tokens.  These he carried around in his pocket everyday for the rest of his life to remember and honor the family he had lost.  It is because of William’s amazing story and the importance of this disaster that we are so excited to have this token come to our collection, so thank you to Robert Zipse for thinking of us a fitting home for your family treasure.

11 thoughts on “Sinking of the steamboat General Slocum”

  1. Hello, This was a touching story. I had some very tangential connectio to the Slocum disaster. When I was a boy (back in the mid 1950’s) I would spend my Summers in the little (and very quaint at that time) town of Pleasant Valley, NY. I stayed at my Uncle Bob Whiteford’s farm. His wife (Aunt Laura) was German, and her mother and brother were on that boat and died in the fire. The story I heard was that her father did not want them to go and there were some harsh words spoken and her father’s last words to her mother had been something along the lines of “If you go, then don’t come back.) Aunt Laura stayed with her father, which is why she was around to tell me that story. Also, If you’ve never read the James Joyce novel “Ulysses,” the whole novel takes place in one day, and it must have been the day of or the day after the Slocum disaster, since several times throughout the novel’s ‘day’ different characters are asking if others had heard the terrible news from America.

    By the way, is this the Mariner Museum at Kings Point, NY?

    1. Hi Jim. Thank you for sharing your story. It is truly amazing how interconnected people and events can be. I know that this disaster devastated a great number of families in the German community and traumatized those who survived or who did not get on the boat that day.

      We are The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virgina.

    1. Hi Susan. Unfortunately I haven’t run across anything mentioning what happened to Frank Barnaby. I am currently unable to search in our library as it is closed. An excellent book on the tragedy is Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum by Edward T. O’Donnell. I know it talks about the aftermath of the Slocum incident and the guilty verdict for the captain, but I’m not sure if talks about what happened to Barnaby.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Does the Mariner’s Museum have a display or information on the General Slocum? I am only now learning about my family’s connection to the tragedy. Sophia Zipse, William’s mother, who was aboard the ship and survived, was the sister of my great grandmother, Mary. Sophia moved in with Mary’s family including my grand father, after her husband died where she apparently stayed until her death. As we live in Yorktown, I would love to visit the Mariner’s Museum and learn more.

    Louise Naughton

    1. Hi Gary,

      Thanks for so much for reading our blog and for the information. General Slocum is certainly an interesting and tragic piece of maritime history.

  3. I grew up in Astoria, Queens, where I learned about the Slocum disaster in a local history tour as a teenager. I just found out, as a result of family history research, that my great great aunt (Catherine Coan Weis) was a survivor of the tragedy! Cross-referencing the dates, I realized that her first born son (John Weis, age 1) died in the tragedy. Kate was 23 years old at the time. I can’t imagine the anguish. I imagine there is a list of survivors somewhere, but I thought it would be nice to memorialize her here, as well as her lost child.

  4. My Great Grandmother and Grandmother were on the Slocum that day for the church picnic. I’m very fortunate to be here to make that statement!!! I was raised in Astoria and when I’d go to Astoria Park and stand by Hellgate Bridge, I would always think of that tradegy. So sad!!!

  5. My Great Grandmother and my Grandmother were aboard the Slocum that day of the tragedy for the church picnic. I’m very fortunate to be here to make that statement. I was raised in Astoria and everytime I would go to the park, I’d remember the Slocum tragedy! So sad.