The General Slocum or How My Great Grandmother Missed the Boat [HISTORY]

Posted on: June 12th, 2014 at 11:14 am by

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The PS General Slocum, Photo: Wikipedia

With June 15 being the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the PS General Slocum in the East River, I thought it appropriate to share a personal snippet about a young Lower East Side girl who “missed the boat,” so to speak. The story of the General Slocum passenger boat is certainly a sad one, but nevertheless an intergral part of city history; it was the single worst loss of life around the city until 9/11. An article in The New York Times described the incident a day after its occurrence:

An estimated total of a thousand dead, besides several hundred injured, is the record of the fire disaster which yesterday destroyed the big excursion steamer General Slocum, which was burned to the water’s edge before her Captain succeeded in beaching her on North Brother Island. Nearly all the dead and missing are women and children and were members of an excursion party taken out by St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church of 323 East Sixth Street. The estimate that the number of lives lost will be found to reach 1,000 was given by Police Inspector Brooks at an early hour this morning. Fire Chief Croker shared his view, saying that at least 900 persons must have perished.

Survivors say the life preservers were worthless and rotted away in the hands of those who attempted to use them.

Gertrude Gollardt (my great grandmother) was born on October 24, 1887 in Berlin, Germany. She lived at 220 East 13th street with her parents when the General Slocum sank in 1904. Luckily for Gertrude, she was not aboard the ship, but only because her parents refused to let her go. Her son later recounted in his memoir:

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Gertrude Gollardt

One day My Mother started to tell us about 
her youth. She spent at least two hours talking. She told how when she was sixteen she 
would spend her summers at her Uncle’s hotel in Newark, N.J. She would leave her home
 in the East Village on a bike, cross-town, take a ferry and then on to her uncle’s. In about
 two weeks a note would arrive in the mail saying that she had arrived safely – and later on
 in the summer, back again. No telephones in those days! Her Uncle Hertzog had a restaurant in
 the hotel at Hoboken. He also owned a restaurant in Harlem. My Mother said he bragged 
about how he would take the scraps of steak from the Hoboken restaurant and send them
 to Harlem where the customers thought that this was the best-chopped meat ever!

Since my Mother’s parents ran a rooming house, my mother ran into midgets from
 the circus, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and lots of theatrical people. In
 the East Village my Mother’s family had joined the Lutheran Church. Together with 
other churches, they arranged a pleasure day trip on the boat, The General Slocum, up the
 East River. My Mother was not allowed to go. She was really disappointed. But the
 boat caught on fire and 1,100 people were killed, devastating the whole Community. There is a cemetery in Queens that has a memorial to those killed on The General
 Slocum. We used to drive past it on our way to NYC and my Father pointed it out. Had
 my Mother gone I probably would not be here today.

The neighborhood still commemorates the loss of life with both a memorial plaque and fountain for the General Slocum (est. 1906) in Tompkins Square Park.

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General Slocum Memorial Plaque in Tompkins Square Park

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General Slocum Memorial Fountain in Tompkins Square Park

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