Prior to September 11, the General Slocum steamship fire was the greatest loss of life in any disaster in New York City history. However, its memorial in Tompkins Square is easily overlooked.
The nine-foot stele sculpted by Bruno Louis Zimm from pink Tennessee marble shows two children in relief with the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” A lion’s head spits out water into a small basin. On June 15, 1904, some 300 of the 1,300 passengers to board the General Slocum excursion steamer were children under the age of 10.
Almost all of the passengers were from Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, an area in today’s East Village. The Slocum had been chartered by the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sixth Street and Second Avenue for their annual picnic. As it was a weekday, most of the passengers were women and children. Just 20 minutes after the boat left the Third Street pier, a fire broke out.
Pandemonium ensued. The life vests turned out to be worse than useless, sinking with whomever jumped in (most of the passengers were unable to swim), and lifeboats were painted to the side of the ship. The captain sped the boat towards North Brother Island in an attempt to beach it, but the speed just fanned the flames. By the time the boat arrived to the quarantine hospital island, it was consumed in fire. Patients and doctors attempted to save people by tossing them debris. By the end of the day, around 1,000 people were dead.
Many of the deceased were interred in Middle Village’s Lutheran cemetery, where a monument was built in 1905. The Tompkins Square fountain was dedicated in 1906. As for Little Germany, with mostly men left behind with their families dead, they dissipated throughout the city, and you can only find small traces of this past in the rare German sign on an old building in the East Village.