The General Slocum and The Two Evas

Eva_Schneider-GraveTim MilkThe grave of Eva Schneider and her daughter at Greenwood Cemetery.

On the 107th anniversary of the Slocum Disaster, local historian Tim Milk looks at the fate of two passengers.

It’s always had that inexplicable sadness about it, that red former Lutheran church on Sixth Street. Even before the plaque went up on the cast-iron fence which tells the sad story, one could never shake the brooding heaviness that hovered in its yard and hung over its doorstep while passing it by.

Surely it felt different on that lovely early summer’s day when Eva Schneider and her teenage daughter, also named Eva, departed its gates with so many mothers and kids from the largely German congregation to cross over to the East River piers. There, the two Evas and their many good friends, all in holiday dress, would board the excursion steamship General Slocum for an invigorating trip around the bend.

Today, their headstone looks out from a hillside just inside the fence of Greenwood Cemetery. It sadly attests to all who pass by that the two Eva’s lie there together, having both died that same day with 1,200 others. What a vivid picture the legend creates in the mind — a blue sky, the spray of the waves, stiff breezes stirring dresses and children’s hair tied with ribbons, then a desperate panic as the lumbering paddle-wheeler burst into flames.

General Slocum MemorialSophie Hoeller The General Slocum memorial in Tompkins Square Park.

It has been said that the Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904 was the end of the German community in the East Village and for good reason. Stories in The Times bring to us ghastly images of horror and grief, and a number of suicides: fathers who could not bear the loss of their wives and children. After that day, most of the Germans left this place and never did look back.

But the rest of the story must include the tragic result of lax regulation, because the Slocum was a disaster waiting to happen. Such was the state of the ferry trade that operating an unsafe vessel was considered an acceptable part of everyday business. It stands to remind us that the call for deregulation is nothing new, and that the two Eva’s are just a couple of the many through history who have been caught in the outcome
of complete disregard.