The men who built the Tacoma Narrows Bridge used to suck lemons on the job site, to keep from becoming seasick. It was probably one of these “boomers” who first noticed how the bridge rippled in the wind. Someone called it “Galloping Gertie”, and the name stuck.
The name “Galloping Gertie” was first used to describe a 900′ bridge over the Ohio River in Wheeling, West Virginia. Built in 1849, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time, until collapsing in a windstorm in May, 1854.
Ninety years later, the 5,939′ bridge over Puget Sound earned the same name.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge had been designed by one of the most respected bridge engineers of its time. Federal and state experts all approved the plans, when construction began in 1937. When finished, it was the third longest suspension bridge in the world.
The deck’s vertical wave motions, or “bounce”, were noted as early as May 1940, as workmen finished the bridge’s floor system. As with the 790’ John Hancock Tower in Boston, the bridge would literally twist in the wind. The solution was similar in both cases. Engineers installed hydraulic buffers, pistons called “Tuned Mass Dampers,” to act as shock absorbers. The tactic worked for the John Hancock building, which, mercifully, no longer ejects 4’x11’, 500lb glass panels onto the street below.
The tactic made little to no improvement on the bridge.
The men who built it used to suck lemons on the job site, to keep from becoming seasick. It was probably one of these “boomers” who first noticed how the bridge rippled in the wind. Someone called it “Galloping Gertie”, and the name stuck.
Carol Peacock, a student at nearby Fife High School, sat down to do her homework on the evening of November 6, 1940. She was taking a journalism class. Her assignment was to write an essay beginning with, “Just suppose . . .” She called her essay, “Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses.” Nostradamus could not have called it better. The bridge came down the next day.
Leonard Coatsworth, a Tacoma News Tribune editor, entered the span some time before 11:00am on November 7, the last person to drive onto the bridge. “Just as I drove past the towers”, he said, “the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car…I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb…Around me I could hear concrete cracking…The car itself began to slide from side to side of the roadway. On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers…Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time…Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.”
The bridge was bucking so violently that at times, one sidewalk rose as high as 28’ above its opposite.
Frederick Bert Farquharson was a professor of civil engineering at the University of Washington. He’d been retained to help fix the bridge, and was on the span on the morning of the 7th. Professor Farquharson noticed “Tubby”, a black Cocker Spaniel, cowering in the back of Coatsworth’s abandoned car. He tried to rescue the terrified dog, but all he got was a bite on the hand. Driven by the desire to record the engineering science and delayed by the failed rescue attempt, Professor Farquharson was the last to leave the span. Tubby went down with the bridge, the only life lost in the incident.
The bridge remains at the bottom of Puget Sound to this day, one of the largest artificial reefs, in the world.
Photographer Howard Clifford and reporter Bert Brintnall covered the story for the Tacoma News Tribune. The pair had noticed a billboard ad that morning, for the Pacific National Bank. “As secure as the Narrows Bridge,” it read. They returned fewer than two hours after the collapse, wanting to photograph the billboard for their story. Workmen had already covered the sign with white paper.
“This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.
The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on its secret mission on July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay, III. She was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.
Indianapolis made her delivery on July 26, arriving at Guam two days later and then heading for Leyte to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. She was expected to arrive on the 31st.
Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive. Within 12 minutes she had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.
About 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving almost 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets and there were few life boats. There had been too little time.
For four days they treaded water, alone in open ocean, hoping for the rescue that did not come. Shark attacks began on the first day, and didn’t let up for the entire time they were in the water. Kapok life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless.
Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the days went by. Some went insane and began to attack shipmates. Others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them in a matter of hours.
Some simply swam away, following some hallucination that only they could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, and then disappear from sight, as the sharks claimed another victim.
At Naval Command, there was confusion about where Indianapolis was to report when it arrived. When the cruiser failed to arrive on the 31st, there was no report of the non-arrival. Perhaps worst, a message which could have clarified Indianapolis’ expected arrival on Monday came through garbled, and there was no request to repeat it.
As it was, only the barest of chances led to Indianapolis’ survivors being located at all. Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, had lost the weight from a navigational antenna wire. Belly-crawling through the fuselage to fix the thrashing antenna, Gwinn noticed an oil slick. Back in the cockpit, he dropped down to have a better look. Only then did he spot men floating in open ocean.
Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks and his PBY Catalina amphibious patrol aircraft were the first on the scene. Horrified to see sharks actually attacking the men below, Marks landed his flying boat at sea. The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, half dead after almost five days in the water. Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 317 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.
The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew at least two Japanese submarines operated within the area. No Matter. A capital ship had been lost and someone was going to pay. A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to Captain McVay’s court-martial.
No less a figure than Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) and Admiral Raymond Spruance, for whom the Indianapolis had served as 5th Fleet flagship, opposed the court-martial, believing McVay to be guilty of an error in judgement at worst, not gross negligence. Naval authorities in Washington saw things differently, particularly Navy Secretary James Forrestal and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King.
Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag” at discretion, a naval maneuver most effective at avoiding torpedoes already in the water. No Navy directives in effect at that time or since have so much as recommended, let alone ordered, zigzagging at night or in poor visibility.
Prosecutors flew I-58 commander Hashimoto in to testify at the court-martial, but he swore that zigzagging would have made no difference. The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”, his career ruined.
McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Many family members held him personally responsible for the death of loved ones. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go. There was almost always hate mail from some family member. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.
As the years went by, McVay began to question himself. In time, he came to feel the weight of the Indianapolis’ dead, a soul crushing burden from which there was no escape. On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay took a seat on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and killed himself. He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.
The ULTRA code-breaking system which revealed I-58’s presence on Indianapolis’ course, would not be declassified until the early 90s.
Hunter Alan Scott was 11 and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. He was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks. The next year, he created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on USS Indianapolis’ sinking.
The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents. The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.
Scott’s National History Day project went up to the state finals, only to be rejected because he used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.
He couldn’t let it end there. Scott began to attend Indianapolis survivors’ reunions, at their invitation, and helped to gain a commitment in 1997 from then-Representative Joe Scarborough that he would introduce a bill in Congress to exonerate McVay the following year.
Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire joined Scarborough in a joint resolution of Congress. Hunter Scott and several Indianapolis survivors were invited to testify before Senator John Warner and the Senate Armed Services committee on September 14, 1999.
Holding a dog tag in his hand, Scott testified “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.
The United States Congress passed a resolution in 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 30, exonerating Charles Butler McVay, III of the charges which had led to his court martial, humiliation and suicide.
The record cannot not be expunged – Congress has rules against even considering bills which alter military records. Yet Captain McVay had been exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried for years to accomplish, without success. Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.
The last word on the whole episode belongs to Captain Hashimoto, who wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1999 on behalf of Captain McVay. “Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences“, wrote the former submarine commander, now a Shinto Priest. “Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction“.
With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control. Flare-ups would continue inside the ship until 4:00 the next morning.
The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk, Virginia in June 1967, with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, Forrestal stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines, before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin, arriving on July 25.
Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1,000lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. These tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures. Like a huge sparkler.
Along with the Mark 83s, the ordnance resupply had included 16 AN-M65A1 “fat boy” bombs, WWII surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th. These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 20+ year-old “Composition B” explosive. Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than newer ordnance, composition B becomes more so as the explosive ages. The stuff becomes more powerful as well, up to 50%, by weight.
These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last 30 years in the heat and humidity of the Philippine jungle. Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys. They were rusting and leaking paraffin, their packaging rotted. Some had production dates as early as 1935.
Handlers were wary of these old weapons, fearing they might go off spontaneously during catapult launch. Someone suggested that they be immediately jettisoned. Captain John Beling was informed of these concerns, and demanded that Diamond Head, their supply ship, take them back and exchange them for newer ordnance. The reply was that there were no more. Combat operations were using Mark 83s up faster than new ones could be procured. Fat boys were all that was available.
At 10:50am local time, July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.
Today, John McCain’s diagnosis of brain cancer has brought the Senator from Arizona to prominence in the evening news. Fifty years ago today, Lieutenant Commander John McCain was in the cockpit of an A-4 Skyhawk. Next to him was Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White in his own A-4.
An electrical malfunction fired a 5″ Zuni rocket across the flight deck and into White’s fuel tank. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented it from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other fuel tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration as McCain scrambled down the nose of the aircraft and across the refueling probe.
Damage Control Team #8 sprang into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boys turning cherry red in the flames. Without benefit of protective clothing, Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1,000lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.
Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared. The bomb went off in just over a minute, killing Farrier instantly and virtually the entire firefighting team, along with Fred White, who was a split second behind McCain.
The Mark 83 bombs performed as designed, but eight of the old thousand-pounders went off in the next few seconds, triggering the sympathetic detonation of at least one 500 pounder. The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist as huge holes were torn in the flight deck, flaming jet fuel draining into the aircraft hangar and the living quarters below.
Gary Childs, my uncle, was in his cabin when the fire broke out, leaving just before his quarters were engulfed in flames. With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, he and hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control. Flare-ups continued inside the ship until 4:00am on the 30th.
Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial contains the names of 134 crewmen who died in the conflagration. Eighteen of those found their final rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Another 161 were seriously wounded. Not including the aircraft, damage to the USS Forrestal exceeded $72 million. Equivalent to over $415 million today.
Since 1950, there have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents. As of this date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.
At one time, the C-124 was the world’s largest military transport aircraft. Weighing in at 175,000lbs with a wingspan of 175ft, four 3,500 horsepower Pratt & Whitney propeller engines drive the air frame along at a stately cruising speed of 246 mph. Manufacturer Douglas Aircraft called the aircraft “Globemaster”. Airmen called the plane “Old Shaky”.
The Air Force C-124 Globemaster transport left its base in Delaware on July 28, 1957, on a routine flight to Europe. On board were a crew of seven, three nuclear bombs, and one nuclear core. The flight would routinely have taken 10-12 hours. This trip was destined to be anything but routine.
Exactly what went wrong remains a mystery, due to the sensitive nature of the cargo. Two engines had to be shut down shortly into the mission, and the aircraft turned back. The nearest suitable airfield was the Naval Air Station in Atlantic City, but that was too far. Even at maximum RPMs, the best the remaining two engines could do was slow the massive aircraft’s descent into the sea.
An emergency landing on open ocean is not an option with such a large aircraft. It would have broken up on impact with the probable loss of all hands. Descending rapidly, the crew would have jettisoned everything they could lay hands on, to reduce weight. Non-essential equipment would have gone first, then excess fuel, but it wasn’t enough. With only 2,500ft and losing altitude, there was no choice left but to jettison those atomic bombs.
At 3,000lbs apiece, two of the three bombs were enough to do the job, and the C-124 made it safely to Atlantic City. What became of those two atomic bombs remains a mystery. Most likely, they lie at the bottom of the ocean, 100 miles off New Jersey.
The United States Department of Defense has a term for accidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads or components, which do not involve the immediate risk of nuclear war. Such incidents are called “Broken Arrows”.
Broken Arrows include accidental or unexplained nuclear or non-nuclear detonation of an atomic weapon, the loss of such a weapon with or without its carrying vehicle, and the release of nuclear radiation resulting in public hazard, whether actual or potential.
Since 1950, there have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents. As of this date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.
If you’re interested, a handy “Nuclear Folly Locator” appears at the link below, based on Rudolph Herzog’s “A Short History of Nuclear Folly”. It makes for some very comforting reading.
Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster. Ironically, that weight is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland, to disaster.
The SS Eastland was a passenger steamship based in Chicago, used for tours of the inland waterways and Great Lakes areas around the city. Eastland’s design was top heavy and made her subject to listing, a problem that plagued the ship from her christening in 1903. Embarking passengers would crowd along the rail to wave goodbye, several times having to be herded across the decks to reduce the list. Once, she even started to take on water at the main gangplank.
Special passenger restrictions were imposed on Eastland, which seemed to help until 1914, when Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster.
The ironic part is that the weight of additional lifeboats is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland to disaster.
It was July 24, 1915, when Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take Western Electric employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Eastland was docked on the south bank of the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle, near the site of the present day Merchandise Mart. Passengers began boarding around 6:30am. By 7:10 the ship had reached its full capacity of 2,572 passengers.
A number of passengers went below decks to get out of the chill, but hundreds stayed out on the upper decks, excited about the day ahead. The port side list away from the dock, had set in early in the boarding process, and crew members began to pump water into the starboard ballast tanks to stabilize the ship. Something interesting must have happened on the river at 7:28, causing a number of passengers to rush to the port side rail.
Novelist Jack Woodford witnessed what happened next, describing it in his autobiography: “And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy”. Hundreds were trapped below decks, others were crushed under heavy bookcases, pianos and tables.
Another vessel, the Kenosha, pulled alongside almost immediately. Several passengers were able to jump directly onto her decks, others were rescued at the wharf, only 20′ away. Hundreds were beyond saving.
Temporary morgues were set up in area buildings for the identification of the dead; including what is now the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Studios, and the location of the Chicago Hard Rock Cafe.
Then-20-year-old George Halas was scheduled to be on the Eastland, but he was late and showed up after the capsize. 844 passengers and four crew members lost their lives in the disaster, but Eastland herself would have a second life. She was raised from the bottom, converted to a gun boat, and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Reserve, re-christened USS Wilmette.
Wilmette saw no combat service in WWI, though she was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the US after WWI. Wilmette’s guns were manned by Gunner’s Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in WWI, and Gunner’s Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the war.
Wilmette would serve once again as a training ship in WWII, and sold for scrap on Halloween day, 1946.
When the main switch was opened, only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.
The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout prison in Maryland, to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.
Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags, giving the second train right of way, but #171 was running late. First delayed while guards located missing prisoners, then there was that interminable wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.
Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola, Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags. His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed. Kent may have been drunk that day, but nobody’s certain. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.
Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City. Kent gave the all clear at 2:45. The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.
Only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.
The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a pass blasted out of solid rock and named after its prime engineering contractors. This section of track followed a blind curve with only 50’ visibility. Engineer Samuel Hoitt was at the throttle of #237. Hoitt would survive, having just enough time to jump before the moment of impact. One man in the lead car on #171 was thrown clear. He too would live. There would be no other survivors among the 37 men on that car.
Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck: “[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken. The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. Witnesses saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”
Pinned by cordwood against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. Frank Evans, one of the guards, remembered: “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”
Evans describes the scene. “I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily-laden coal train, traveling nearly as fast as we were. The trains had come together with that deadly crash. The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together…Taken all in all, that wreck was a scene of horror such as few, even in the thick of battle, are ever doomed to be a witness of.”
Estimates of Confederate dead are surprisingly inexact. Most sources indicate 51 killed on the spot or dying within the first 24 hours. Other sources put their number as high as 60 to 72. 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners appear to have escaped in the confusion.
Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was in the Elmira camp at this time. Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171. William was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid the 76′ trench in which the Confederate dead were buried. He died in Elmira three days later, never regaining consciousness.
I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other that one last time. James Tyner was my twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers who had gone to war in 1861.
We’ll never know. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.
Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the Congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York. The remaining POWs killed immediately or shortly thereafter were buried in a common grave that night, alongside the track. Individual graves were dug for the 17 Union dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.
As the years went by, signs of all those graves were erased. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie Railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they passed.
The “pumpkin flood” of 1903 scoured the rail line uncovering many of the dead, carrying away at least some of their mortal remains, along with thousands of that year’s pumpkin crop.
On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola we’re disinterred, and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, in Elmira, New York.
Two brass plaques bear the names of the dead, mounted to opposite sides of a common stone marker. The names of the Union dead face north. Those of the Confederate face south.
The only instance from of the Civil War era, in which Union and Confederate share a common grave.
In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble. The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”
Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now the East Village. “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.
It was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum, left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.
She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300+ children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.
The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am. A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.
The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment. Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor. Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.
Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered” It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. The wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.
Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under. Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.
A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.
Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island. Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.
1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned. It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history. There were only 321 survivors.
The youngest survivor of the disaster was six month old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”
Both her sisters, were among the unidentified dead.
Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families. There were more than a few suicides. Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-clannish community, as the men began to move away. There was nothing for them, there. Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.
In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble. The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”
Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100. The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.