Gradually, whether good or bad, tragedy fades from our historic memory. Little by little grievous disasters become, at best, stories protracted by bronze plaques or statues; at worst totally forgotten.
Hundreds of people pass the beautifully-veined pink marble fountain in Tompkins Square every day. Hardly anyone knows why it is there.
At the turn of the last century the Lower East Side housed an enclave of German immigrants; called "Kleindeutchland" or "Little Germany." On the morning of Wednesday, June 15, 1904 the members of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church at 323 E. 6th Street near 2nd Avenue set off on their 17th annual summer outing. For $350, they had chartered the 235-foot steam sidewheeler The General Slocum for a day trip up the East River, across the Long Island Sound to a picnic grove on Long Island.
They never made it there.
Because it was a Wednesday morning and because children rode for free, the boat was filled mostly with women and children. Over 1,300 passengers boarded the steamer which carried a crew of 35. The church party was unaware of The General Slocum's recent history of problems -- running aground several times and, at least twice, colliding with another ship. Worse yet, Captain William Van Shaick had never practiced fire drills with his crew, as required by law, in years. Life preservers and fire hoses had not been inspected since the craft was constructed 13 years earlier.
The ship pushed off from the Third Street Pier at 9:30 am. A band on board played carefree tunes and children ran about on the upper decks. By 10:00 it was entering the trecherous Hell Gate section of the river. It was a this point that onlookers on shore, hearing the music, noticed smoke billowing from below decks and began gesturing to those on board.
The fire below decks intensified when it reached a paint locker filled with gasoline and other flammable liquids. Panicked passengers rushed for life jackets, most of which fell apart in their hands, the canvas fabric having rotted after years of exposure to the elements. The cork filling in the rest of the vests had granulated over time so when mothers laced their children into the vests and tossed them overboard, they watched in utter horror as the cork absorbed the water and pulled their children under.
Captain Van Schaick told The New York Times the following day that he looked out from his pilothouse and saw "a fierce blaze -- the wildest I have ever seen."
Crew members tried in vain to fight the conflagration with rotten fire hoses which burst under the water pressure. Having been repeatedly painted in place, life boats were stuck to the ship's side. Pandemonium reigned as children jumped into the river, some sucked under in the turbulant Hells Gate eddies, others pulled into the side wheels and beaten to death. Women who jumped overboard in their woolen Edwardian garments were quickly weighed down and drowned.
The captain steered the ship towards North Brother Island in the Bronx, into the wind, which fanned the flames and intensified the conflagration. Suddenly the main deck collapsed dropping hundreds of women and children into the inferno below.
As with the Miracle on the Hudson -- the US Airways jetliner that landed in the river a century later -- New Yorkers rushed to the rescue. Two fireboats, at least a dozen tugboats, ferries, a police boat -- over 100 vessels in all -- hurried to the scene. For most it was too late. Within a span of 15 minutes the General Slocum was burned to the waterline.
The entire nation was stunned. Little Germany was decimated and never recovered. Those who survived moved away.
The inscription reads "They were Earth's purest children, young and fair."
The Sympathy Society of German Ladies installed the fountain so that the unspeakable loss of lives on The General Slocum would never be forgotten. We have, unfortunately, forgotten.