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Sunday, April 09, 2006

The "General Slocum" maritime disaster and its effects

Covered by Der Spiegel here:
The General Slocum disaster of 1904 killed more than 1,000 people, most of them German immigrants and German-Americnas. It was one of the deadliest fires in American history and by far theUnited States' most deadly peacetime maritime disaster. It was also New York's deadliest day before the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001. Yet even today most Americans (indeed, even most New Yorkers) know nothing about it. How did a disaster of such magnitude fade so rapidly and so completely from public memory?
The General Slocum tragedy left a lasting mark on New York City. Most dramatically, it reshaped the city's ethnic map, causing the rapid dissolution of the Little Germany enclave. This trend was already well under way long before 1904, but the disaster prompted a rapid acceleration as survivors and relatives of victims were unwilling to remain in a neighborhood suffused by tragedy. By the time of the 1910 census, only a handful of German families remained.

The disaster also prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to name a commission to investigate the Slocum tragedy and recommend measures that would prevent an event like it from occurring again. The commission held hearings in New York and Washington, D. C. and took testimony from hundreds of witnesses and experts. The result was a major upgrading of steamboat safety regulations and a sweeping reform of the United States Steamboat Inspection Service (USSIS), leading to dramatic improvements in steamboat safety.

Remarkably, the Slocum tragedy rapidly faded from public memory, to the point that it was replaced as New York City's GREAT fire just seven years later when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burned. There were similarities between the two fires - both involved immigrants and mostly female victims and both aroused public wrath. But the Triangle fire's death toll was 85% lower than the Slocum just seven years earlier. How then did it become the fire of fires in New York's (and the nation's) memory?
The article provides some suggested answers.

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