One hundred and eleven years ago today, June 15, 1904, the steamship General Slocum set off in New York Harbor ferrying nearly fourteen hundred people, many of them parishioners of St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan’s Little Germany, to a picnic on Long Island. It was an annual celebration for St. Mark’s, a church cruise and picnic to mark the end of the school year and the beginning of summer.
Minutes into the cruise, tragedy struck. A fire started in a storage room and spread quickly. Because the ship had been inspected in name only for decades, none of the firefighting or lifesaving equipment worked. Aged firehoses instantly sprung leaks and proved useless as flames swept through the decks. Lifeboats that had been “painted” where they hung over the years were stuck to the boat and would not budge. And the worst insult? Passengers who grabbed cork-filled life preservers and thought they were jumping to their safety in the harbor (few city-dwellers could swim in those days) discovered the preservers were original to the boat and that the aged cork had turned to dust, dust that became as heavy as stone when it hit the water.
An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 aboard the boat that day died; the second largest loss of life in New York City after 9/11. Since the outing was on a Wednesday, many of these were women and children; the men of the family still heading off to work. By mid-day, many of them would discover their entire families were gone. Some committed suicide that very day or in the weeks to follow; others never recovered mentally. Many did, somehow picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.
I became interested in the tragedy when my mother started telling me that it was one of the reasons Astoria, Queens started to grow in the early 1900’s. Many of the men in Little Germany moved across the river to Astoria to start over. Astoria was near Hell Gate where the ship went down but it wasn’t full of the memories of where they had lived with their families. In fact, many said they simply couldn’t bear to live in Little Germany any longer, in a place suddenly so absent of women and children.
I have always been familiar with Astoria as a part of the Queens borough I spent a lot of time in growing up. But I became fascinated by the fact that a place could grow and flourish as a result of such a tragedy. I decided I wanted to write a multigenerational novel that began there, that started with one man, Augustus Horstmann, a watch maker, somehow starting over after losing his wife, mother, sister and young son in the wreck, and followed him and then his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren through the rest of the twentieth century. None of them, of course, are immune to loss, just as none of us are.
Titled The Gift, the novel focuses on the stories of three characters, Augustus, his daughter Anna and Anna’s great-grandson-in-law, Nicholas, and three periods of time, 1914-16, 1946 and 2001-2004. It’s with my agent now.
You can watch an excellent documentary on the Slocum tragedy here (make sure you have time or watch in bits; it’s almost 45 minutes long); featuring recreated scenes, interviews with historians and survivors and present-day footage of where the steamship went down.