Middle Village memorial evokes Slocum calamity

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There, on your left, at the intersection of Slocum and Sylvan avenues, you will find one of the two memorials marking the greatest tragedy in New York City’s history, before the murders of Sept. 11, 2001.

The horror of Sept. 11 2001 was on a local, regional, national and international scale. What happened on Wednesday, June 15, 1904, was on a very local scale. But the deaths of as many as 1,021 people that day caused an extraordinary shock to the city and resulted in the exodus of many families from one part of Manhattan to other sections of the city and beyond.

To better understand the devastation of the disaster, it should be noted that residents of German descent represented about one-third of the population of the city in the 1880s and their numbers peaked at about 750,000 in 1900. Beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, many of these immigrants settled in “Kleindeutc­hland,” an area bounded by East 16th Street on the north, the East River, Division and Grand streets on the south and the Bowery on the west.

Almost in the very center of this community stood St. Mark’s Lutheran Church at 325 East 6th St., between First and Second avenues. It was members and friends of this congregation who perished on that day 100 years ago.

The General Slocum, an excursion boat, left from a pier at the foot of East Third Street and headed north with about 1,330 passengers, mostly women and children. This was the day of the 17th annual St. Marks Sunday school outing. The day was sunny, hot and humid. A band on the boat played Martin Luther’s powerful hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” They were going to Locust Grove Picnic Ground at Eaton’s Neck on Long Island Sound.

I have heard that after the disaster, the owner of the picnic ground never reopened it.

As the boat drew even with East 125th Street, fire broke out in a cabin on the main deck. Efforts to put it out failed. The boat had not been properly inspected. Life jackets were rotting and falling apart. The crew had been virtually without emergency training.

Lifeboats could not be lifted from the deck, cork in the life jackets had turned to dust with age and fire hoses broke under water pressure.

It was all over in a few minutes. The General Slocum was beached on North Brother Island. She listed, and smoke and flames enveloped her.

Hard-bitten veteran reporters are said to have looked and wept at this scene of devastation. Rewrite men in newsrooms, who took the news by phone from reporters in the field, were reported to have vomited because of the graphic horror they heard.

The funerals lasted more than a week. There was a steady stream of hearses and other vehicles to Lutheran Cemetery over the Williamsburg Bridge, which had opened just the year before.

It was reported that many fathers and husbands of the deceased died of grief and that others killed themselves. Still others went mad. Almost every family in the community was touched by the disaster. An exodus began to other parts of the city — anywhere else to get away from the memory of what had happened.

On June 15, 1905, a year to the day later, the monument in Lutheran Cemetery was dedicated. In relief, in marble, the General Slocum is shown in flames, with people leaping into the water. The text says that it was erected by the Organization of General Slocum Survivors and the public in memory of the 61 unidentified dead who lost their lives.

The back bears the same inscription in German, with the names of the monument committee members. In 1912, one Kathrinka M. Stoss donated two marble angels to the plot. One is holding a child, and the other is holding a trumpet to its lips. Stoss dedicated her gift to the Organization of the General Slocum Survivors “in memory of their dead.”

Earlier, on May 30, 1905, the Slocum Memorial Fountain was donated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and installed in Tompkins Square Park, which covers the area between Avenues A and B, from 7th to 10th streets, also in the heart of what was then the German enclave. Of pink Tennessee marble, it shows a low relief of two children looking seaward.

The monument was restored in 1991. It is not easy to find. You have to go through the arcade of the office and restrooms building to see it. The fountain works, but the raised figures of the children and the lettering are fading. It is best to enter the park from 10th Street.

I have heard that in another place, not open to the public, there are photographs and memorabilia about this terrible event. This is at the Zion-St. Marks Lutheran Church, formerly known as the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche von Yorkville, the successor building of the St. Mark’s congregation that hired the ill-fated paddle-wheeler.

The General Slocum disaster was reported around the world. It is forever part of world literature, where it is mentioned in James Joyce’s monumental novel “Ulysses,” which takes place in Dublin, Ireland, over the course of June 16, 1904, the day following the East River horror.

If you go to East 6th Street, you will find it to be part of the gentrification of the Lower East Side. There are many restaurants on the block. There is no trace of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which closed in 1940, and no marker to show where it stood on June 15, 1904, before the disaster changed the area forever.

The building is now the Community Synagogue, and on June 13 at 9 a.m. the Maritime Industry Museum plans to unveil a plaque at the site. The museum, located on the campus of the SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, will then lead a procession to the Slocum Fountain in Tompkins Square.

The day before, June 12, the museum will sponsor a “Voyage of Remembrance,” a boat trip from the South Street Seaport to North Brother Island. There will be a wreath-laying off the beach on the island. The museum houses a permanent exhibit on the Slocum. Further information may be obtained by calling 718-409-7218.

Also on June 12, at 10 a.m., the General Slocum Memorial Association will hold a ceremony in Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery, followed at 11:15 a.m. by an ecumenical service in Trinity Lutheran Church at 63-70 Dry Harbor Road.

The History Channel is scheduled to present a documentary on the disaster on June 16, and from June 15 to Aug. 22 the New-York Historical Society, at Central Park West and 77th Street, will hold the exhibit “The General Slocum and Little Germany” with historical objects that will illustrate the tragedy.

On Jan. 26 of this year, Adella Wotherspoon, born Adele Martha Liebonow, died at her home in New Jersey. She was the last survivor of the Slocum tragedy. At the age of 6 months, she was the youngest survivor of the horror of June 15. She died at age 100. Her mother and father survived the disaster, but her two sisters, Anna, 3, and Helen, 6, died.

The body of Helen was never found and so she is one of those memorialized in the monument in Middle Village. At the ceremony in Lutheran Cemetery on June 15, 1905, Adella helped to pull the cord on the monument, which depicts despair, grief, courage and belief in the hereafter.

But despite these events and ceremonies, it is as if the people who died on and survived that day of tragedy never existed for most New Yorkers, except for that poor little fountain in Tompkins Square Park and the somber but impressive monument in Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village.

Updated 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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