Prior to the destruction of the Twin Towers, New York’s costliest disaster in terms of human life took place on June 15, 1904, when the General Slocum, a passenger steamboat that had been chartered to transport a group to a church picnic, caught fire and sank in the East River, killing more than 1,000 of the German-Americans on board.
Vowing to help keep the historic event’s memory alive, several dozen individuals attended a special ceremony last Saturday at a cemetery in Middle Village.
While the sinking of the Titanic some eight years later continues to be a source of fascination, the fate of the General Slocum has nearly been forgotten. In an effort to preserve its history, the 108th annual memorial service took place at All Faiths Cemetery on Metropolitan Avenue, with elected officials, servicemen and descendants of the victims among those on hand.
Some of the guests took their places under a makeshift canopy at the foot of a monument which depicts the burning of the ship and provides a lasting tribute to those who perished. According to the ceremony’s host, Dan Austin Jr., the cemetery is the final resting place for several hundred victims, including 61 who remain unidentified.
He called the General Slocum incident “one of the biggest tragedies that’s least well-known.” Stressing the importance of remembering the past, he said, “To know and understand history, we can predict the future. We honor those who helped rescue those who couldn’t help themselves.”
Each year as part of the ceremony a group or individual is honored for “acts of heroics on a daily basis,” Austin said. This year, in a break with tradition, two plaques were presented.
The first went to the NYPD Bomb Squad. In accepting, Lt. Mart Torre said, “We stand ready to serve.”
Also honored was Busso von Alvensleben, the German consul general in New York.
“It’s very touching, indeed,” von Alvensleben said. “It’s extraordinary to see so many German names on tombstones. Today is a very special day. The General Slocum is far back in the mist of history, a most traumatic moment. A sense of history honors the victims and those who uphold their memory.”
“Out of a tragedy you look for a silver lining,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr., citing the increased precautionary measures that have been implemented on passenger ships as a result of the Slocum disaster.
It was a sentiment echoed by Lt. DanielSheppard of the United States Coast Guard, who also spoke on the Slocum’s impact on today’s safety regulations.
He said all marine inspectors are expected to know about the history of the Slocum.
“We strive for absolute safety,” he said.
“It is fitting that we honor these victims,” said former state Sen. Serphin Maltese. “Our immigrant ancestors made great sacrifices. We should honor them and remember them forever.”
Among the others in attendance was Port Jefferson, LI resident Anne Hanrahan, whose great-grandmother was a victim of the disaster and is now buried at All Faiths. Hanrahan spoke of her own mother’s mission to find out as much as possible about the events of that day, leading Hanrahan to become so infatuated with the history that she wrote her master’s thesis on the subject.
“I am obsessed with not letting this become a forgotten tragedy,” she said.
Several musical selections by the bell-ringing group Joyful Ringers & Singers, the sounding of “Taps” and a brief lowering of the American and German flags at the site were part of the 90-minute ceremony.
Pat Dolan, a former resident of Queens who now lives in New Jersey, said, “I felt I had to come,” marking her first appearance at the annual event. She recalled that as a child, she was often brought to the monument by her grandfather, who is now buried in the cemetery.
“We regularly visited this memorial. We would come on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, Easter. To this day I have no idea if my grandfather had any special connection. You never asked questions then when adults were talking,” she said.
“We must never forget the people involved with the Slocum,” said Dan Austin Sr., president of the cemetery. “That’s the bottom line. We must never ever forget these people who were victims.”