Tag Archives: Hell’s Gate

Remembering the General Slocum disaster (June 15, 1904)

The General Slocum Memorial Fountain, one of the sole reminders of one of New York City’s darkest days,  is not a very awe-inspiring memorial.

This is no dig at the custodians of Tompkins Square Park, where the memorial has been on display since 1906, nor at Bruno Louis Zimm, the fountain’s sculptor whose creation presents two children in idyllic profile, next to an engraving: “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

Its left side unveils its more tragic context: “In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum, June XV MCMIV.”

The fountain, while charming and tranquil, is inadequate in expressing the grief and horror that filled New Yorkers on June 15, 1904, when, during a church-sponsored day trip headed for the Long Island Sound, the General Slocum steamboat caught fire and sank in the East River, killing more than a thousand passengers, mostly women and children.

This tragedy was the single deadliest event in New York City history until September 11, 2001.

This disaster virtually wiped out the German presence on the Lower East Side—entire families perished, many of whom had just gotten a foothold in New York a generation before. In a single morning the lights of Kleindeutschland, New York’s Little Germany, permanently faded.

The boat had been chartered by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church* for their yearly day trip excursion to the Long Island Sound. It was a chance for the congregation to briefly break out of the crowded Lower East Side to enjoy a day in the sun. Among the passengers was the Liebenow family, the parents and their three daughters, Anna, Helen, and Adella, along with several aunts and cousins.

A postcard featuring the General Slocum from the Museum of the City of New York collection.

Courtesy MCNY

The Slocum left the pier shortly before 9 a.m. and began its slow crawl up the East River. Captain William Van Schaick had been
principally concerned that morning with one turbulent spot up the East River, a dangerous confluence of waters known as the Hell Gate. It had already sunk hundreds of vessels as far back as the seventeenth century. By 1904 it was still a dangerous pass, but on this day, the Hell Gate would not be the problem.

About 30 minutes into the voyage, a child noticed that a small fire had started in the lamp room below the main deck.

A crewman tried to stamp it out, throwing charcoal on it in an effort to contain it. But the flames only grew larger.

Crew members grabbed a firehose—only to find it rotten to the point that it burst wide open. These were not men trained for emergency situations; once they realized the hoses were useless, they simply gave up.

from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Civilized behavior soon gave way to panic as the flames quickly spread through the lower levels of the steamer, fire jumping from passengers’ clothing to hair.

Families moved away from the flames only to find themselves pressed up against the boat’s railings as panicked crowds pushed forward in search of fresh air. Children lost hold of their parents, never to see them again.

Crowds surged toward the Slocum’s six lifeboats and attempted to hoist them down. But they wouldn’t budge—somebody had wired them to the wall.

The life preservers, never properly inspected, were filled with rotten cork, and several exploded into dust. They were not only useless—they were actually dangerous. Panicked parents strapped preservers to their children and tossed them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank from sight.

Below deck, passengers were burned to death—huddled in groups and trapped in corners. Smoke choked many, causing unconsciousness; many were trampled underfoot.

Some jumped into the violent waves. “There was little hope that any of the children who jumped overboard could be saved,” reported the New York Evening World. “The current all along the course taken is on a section of the river where not even a strong swimmer can breast the currents. Scores of little ones were sucked in by the whirlpools in Hell Gate.”

Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation

Crowds formed along the shores, their attention drawn by the billowing smoke, fire, and horrifying spectacle before them. The captain managed to steer the boat toward North Brother Island, where nurses, doctors, and even patients from the smallpox hospital ran to the water to rescue and attempt to revive those who had washed ashore.

Bodies on the shore of North Brother Island

The Slocum eventually floated out into the Long Island Sound, puffing clouds of cork dust into the air, while leaving a trail of tragedy in its wake.

Just after noon, the burning vessel sank, a single paddle box and a smokestack jutting out of the water.

By the final count, 1,021 people perished in the General Slocum disaster that day, making it the deadliest single event in the city’s history up to that date. In the weeks following the disaster, the streets of Kleindeutschland—today’s East Village—were filled with mourners, as the community attended funerals in the homes of those who had perished and held solemn processions through the streets.

A mass funeral through the streets of the Lower East Side — “burial of the unidentified”

New York Public Library

The Liebenow family was hit particularly hard. The entire Liebenow family died in the disaster—all except baby Adella (pictured below), just six months old at the time of the tragedy.

Two years later, now only two-and-a-half years old, Adella was hoisted to a podium here in Tompkins Square Park. She stood before a community that hadn’t yet fully recovered—would they ever?—as she tugged at a cloth to unveil the General Slocum Memorial Fountain.

NYHS

No, the fountain is not perfect. How could it be?

But why hasn’t this tragedy been better memorialized? It’s such an important event in the city’s history, and yet so many don’t know its whole story. There are a few theories about this, many having to do with the anti-German sentiment that cropped up a decade later at the beginning of World War I.

Or was it the social class of the victims that caused it to recede from memory? Adella, who died in 2004, 100 years after the disaster, believed that this might be the case. To a crowd at a 1999 commemoration of the tragedy, she said, “The Titanic had a great many famous people on it. This was just a family picnic.”

*St. Mark’s is located on East 6th Street, between First and Second Avenues, in the heart of New York’s first and largest German neighborhood. A plaque honoring the victims hangs in front.

There’s also a monument to the victims at a cemetery in Middle Village, Queens

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT THE BOWERY BOYS PODCAST ON THE GENERAL SLOCUM DISASTER (EPISODE #166)

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The Mystery on North Brother Island: A story told in news clippings

A thousand unsolved mysteries live within a newspaper’s archives, little forgotten events that have faded into history. Sometimes you can search deeper, and the answers to those mysteries may emerge.

This is what happened in a series of three articles I found the other day while doing some research on North Brother Island (the fruits of which will be revealed in tomorrow’s new podcast!)

I present to you the three complete clippings as they provide a tragic tale told in a methodical manner. I have been able to find no further information about the central figure other than these three articles.

1
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Lighthouse

But first — Some context on North Brother Island, that little area of land (with its companion South Brother Island) between the Bronx and Riker’s Island.  The island was uninhabited until 1869 when a lighthouse was built here to help navigate the traffic of the East River and Long Island Sound past the treacherous waters known as Hell’s Gate.

According to the book Lost Lighthouses, “The square, wooden residence contained a kitchen, pantry, dining room and sitting room as well as four bedrooms and an oil storage area.  The 50-foot tower rose from the front of the building and was equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens.”

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Quarantine Station

The lonely lighthouse would soon be joined by a hospital specializing in smallpox and other serious diseases. It was to become, in essence, a quarantine station, operated by Riverside Hospital. “The reconstructed smallpox pavilion, on North Brother Island, is ready to receive about forty patients,” reported the New York Tribune in February 1881.

That August, as city officials visited the island to plan the construction, the Tribune reported on its present occupants. “[North Brother Island] has a surface area of about of about thirteen acres. It is at present occupied only by a lighthouse-keeper and his assistant, and by a woman who entertains occasional picnic parties.”

 

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Lighthouse Operator

Flash forward to the cold winter of 1884 — January 2, 1884, in fact. The picnic woman was undoubtedly gone, and the hospital pavilions were newly completed. Administrators and patients may  have just moved in by this time.  We do know, however, that the lighthouse operator was at his helm — a man named Robert Parker. I’ll let the news clippings now take over:

From the New York Sun, January 3, 1884:

1

A MYSTERY OF THE SOUND

Finding the Body of a Woman — A Wound on the Head

“Robert Parker, a stepson of Daniel Kelly*, keeper of the lighthouse on North Brother Island, noticed a flotilla of canal boats about 8 o’clock yesterday morning in tow of one of Starin’s tugs**, going up the Sound.  Immediately in the wake of the boats he saw something bobbing up and down in the water.  He put out in a boat, and as he drew near he discovered the body of a woman.  After he took it ashore he found it was still warm.  Blood was oozing from a wound on the head.  Parker went to Long Island City*** and notified Coroner Robinson, and the body arrived at Long Island City at 6 o’clock last evening.

The woman was about 45 years old, and 5 feet 3 inches in height. She had long dark hair, and was dressed in a calico waist, black overskirt, dark underskirt, lined with red flannel, white apron, dark stockings, and black cloth gaiters.  There was a large lump under her left jaw.  A wound on top of the head had the appearance of having been inflicted by some blunt instrument.  Parker saw no attempt to rescure the woman by any one on the canal boats.”

*Not sure who this Daniel Kelly is. Any guesses?

**The tug boat concern of John Henry Starin, a “leading marine operator in the United States,” owning everything from excursion boats to industrial barges. (Pictured above)

***Still an independent city within Queens County as the Queens borough was not yet created

1

Foul Play?

An article in the New York Times from the same day repeats most of the same information — including that thing about Daniel Kelly — but brings up the opinion of the coroner:

1

“The Coroner thinks that it is a case of foul play, and he has ordered City Physician William Barnett to hold an autopsy.  Parker says that no attempt was made to rescue the woman by any one of the canal-boats.  At Mr. Starin’s office last night nothing was known as to the canal-boats which the tug had in tow, and no information had been received as to the woman’s death.”

The Story of Matilda

By the following day, the woman had been identified. Here is an excerpt from the article. (You can find the original here.) The entirety of the text is below.

1

THE EAST RIVER MYSTERY SOLVED

IDENTIFICATION OF THE BODY FOUND FLOATING IN THE WATER

 

“The body of a woman found floating in the East River, below North Brothers Island, on Wednesday morning, proved to be that of Mrs. Matilda Meyer, wife of Charles B. Meyer, who lives at No. 219 East 75th Street.*

The woman was a mother of five children and a native of Germany.  For some time past, since the death of a son, she had suffered from melancholia, which was  aggravated by the financial troubles of her husband, who was at one time a prosperous brewer.

Mrs. Meyer left her home at 6 o’clock on Wednesday morning, without telling anyone where she was going.

Her husband instituted inquiries among her neighbors and friends when her prolonged absence aroused his fears as to her safety. He feared suicide because of signs of temporary insanity which she had shown at intervals.  Inquiries were made at the Morgue in this City., but no trace of the missing woman was found until Mr. Meyer read in yesterday morning’s papers the accounts of the finding of the body of a woman floating in the wake of a canal tow.

With a friend he went to the Long Island City Morgue, and at once identified the body as that of his wife.  To Coroner Robinson, who had summoned a jury of inquest, he told the facts recited above.

An examination of the body made by Dr. William J. Burnett revealed the fact that the wounds on the woman’s head were superficial and such as might be made by the paddle-wheel of a steamboat.  The inference is that Mrs. Meyer after leaving her home plunged into the river.  The tide was running at the flood, and was about full flood when she was discovered.

Her clothing had served to buoy her up, and so she had floated out to the point where she was discovered by Robert Parker.”

*The building at that address is no longer there.

While the story deems the ‘mystery solved’, to me it opens so many more. Did Matilda really kill herself? What were the circumstances surround her husband’s failed financial fortunes, and those of her son’s death? What of the fate of the other children?

Unfortunately, the answer of these mysteries from the tragic tale of Matilda Meyers may forever be unanswered.

Puzzle time! Can you identify these details of Hell’s Gate?


In digging around a little further for information on Hoorn’s Hook and Hell’s Gate — two East River spots mentioned in the Gracie Mansion podcast — I came across the incredible illustration among the Library of Congress’s digital images page.

Labeled the ‘East View of Hell’s Gate, in the Province of New York’, the piece ran in The London Magazine in April 1778. The London was a anti-Tory publication that naturally took great interest in the war across the pond.

That April, the magazine ran a ‘Description of New York Island’ paying special attention to places of ‘dangerous passage’, including, naturally, the East River’s most treacherous pass, ‘that remarkable spot, called Hell’s Gate’.

(By the way, you can read the whole issue here, thanks to the Hathi Trust. The magazine features such articles as ‘The Hypochondriack’, ‘The False Prude’ and ‘A Turkish Sentimental Tale’ and columns on poetry and mathematics. But the article on New York is not, curiously, available to read.)

Alongside this article ran the plate above; however, time and distorted perspective have almost entirely obscured the precise location where the picture was etched. Our only clues are a set of numbered details, most of them old place names that have faded into obscurity.

1 Hoorn’s Hook (mentioned in the podcast)
2 The Gridiron
3 Hancock’s Rock
4 The Mill Rock (Clue: This is still around.)
5 Morrisana (Probably not the closely named neighborhood but the home of this person.)
6 Bahannas Island
7 Pinfold’s Place
8 Hallet’s Point (Clue: Part of this today.)
9 The Pot
10 The Hog’s Back
11 The Frying Pan

How many of them could you place approximately on a current map today? (Click on the illustration for a bigger view) I admit, many of them have me stumped. Take a guess, then look at a Google Map overhead look of the area for comparison. This article reveals the identity of a few of these.