4. General Slocum Sinking at North Brother Island Was Largest Loss of Life Until 9/11

General Slocum Shipwreck-Fire-North Brother Island-NYCPhoto via Wikimedia Commons from National Archive 

Until the events of September 11th, the sinking of the General Slocum was responsible for the largest loss of life in New York City. The tragedy forever changed the composition of the Lower East Side. On June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Church chartered a boat, the General Slocum, to take 1358 members of its German-American congregation for a fun-filled day on the water and on a Long Island beach.

Not far from shore, a fire burst out, and quickly consumed the ship. The combination of faulty lifeboats and life jackets, a panicked crowd of non-swimmers, and a cowardly crew that sought their own escape first led to mayhem and death. The crisis was made worse by the captain’s refusal to bring the burning ship to shore, ostensibly to prevent the fire from spreading, and the unfortunate timing of the fire occurring while the boat was in Hell Gate’s notoriously rough waters.

The General Slocum sank just off North Brother Island with victims and debris washing up on shore. The staff of the hospitals of the island served as rescue staff for the event. 1,021 people died either by fire or drowning that day, with only a few hundred surviving. The disaster also devastated the large German-American population on the Lower East Side.

See 5 other major shipwrecks on the shores of NYC.