The 1904 Sinking of the General Slocum

By Samuel Phineas Upham

New York has no shortage of interesting stories to tell, there is history on just about every corner, and much of that history lies in the realm of architecture. Skyscrapers, for instance, were meant to be tourist attractions and sparked a competition that was widely publicized around the nation. New York became not just a cultural hub, but a tourist attraction too. In 1904, that cultural hub was brought to a standstill as the General Slocum caught fire and sank.

June 15, 1904

The General Slocum, a passenger vessel that took people on excursions around New York, was readying itself for a chartered boat ride that morning. St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Little Germany District had organized the event. It had been an annual affair for 17 years, and everything looked to be going off without a hitch by 9:30 AM. Not soon after, a discarded match or cigarette caught an oily rag. No one noticed for at least 30 minutes, with eyewitnesses claiming that the blaze seemed to spring up from multiple locations.

The owners of the ship had never replenished the fire hoses, so they fell apart when the crew tried to use them put out the fire. It’s also been suggested that a combination of cheaply manufactured cork and small iron bars were used to bring the life preservers up to weight. Essentially mimicking a preserver in weight alone. Those that were up to code had been hung on deck, subjected to the elements for more than 13 years.

The aftermath caused New York to make serious revisions to building and safety codes.

About the Author: Samuel Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Samuel Phineas Upham website or Twitter.