Today in History, June 15, 1904:
The General Slocum Disaster. The St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church charters the River Boat General Slocum to transport their teachers and children across the East River to Brooklyn to hold their annual picnic.
Keep in mind this was 1904, and Brooklyn was not part of a metropolis. One of the 1,360 passengers, a child, went to the boat’s captain to report that he had seen fire in a room below decks. The Captain responded basically with “go away kid”. By the time the crew found the fire, it was too late.
The Captain, Captain Van Schaik, decided to beach to boat on an island rather than at a dock where fire crews could have assisted with the fire. The boat’s rescue boats were tied down tight, so they couldn’t be used. The life preservers were not buoyant, so the children that donned them sank to the bottom of the river.
Over 1,000 of the passengers were either burned to death or drowned in the conflagration. The “Knickerbocker Company” was charged, but only the Captain actually served any time for the disaster. President Theodore Roosevelt fired the inspector responsible for the safety of the General Slocum.
Today in History, July 18: 1792 – “”I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” John Paul Jones dies in Paris, France. John Paul was born in Scotland and went to sea with British merchant ships at 13. In the West Indies he killed another sailor whom he said was a mutineer and had to flee. He settled in the American colonies and changed his name to John Paul Jones. He joined the Continental Navy when the Revolution began and became famous for his daring and courage; capturing several ships as prizes, raiding the English coast and fighting a horrific battle with his ship “Bonhomme Richard” (French for Poor Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin) during which he responded to a demand for surrender with “I have not yet begun to fight!” After the war he served briefly in the Russian Navy as an admiral, but wanted to return to American service. The “Father of the US Navy” died without fanfare in Paris and was buried in an unmarked grave. Over 100 years later, in 1905, US Ambassador to France Gen. Horace Porter led the search to find Jones’ body, and with the help of the French, succeeded. Jones was taken back to America aboard the cruiser USS Brooklyn and was escorted into port by 7 battleships and 2 other cruisers. President Theodore Roosevelt, a naval power and history enthusiast, spoke at a ceremony at the US Naval Academy honoring Jones. Jones was eventually moved to his current tomb in the chapel at the Academy. An interesting aside; Gen. Porter had quite a history of his own. He was a Medal of Honor recipient for valor during the Civil War, was aide-de-camp to Gen. US Grant, was present in the room at Appomattox when Lee surrendered, and was Grant’s personal secretary during his Presidency.