Book Review: Ship Ablaze – The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum

The burning of the Steamboat General Slocum on New York’s East River on June 15, 1904, was the second-worse disaster (worse had been the Sultana explosion) in New York’s history before the 9/11 attacks, killing 1,021 people, mostly women and children, according to the official numbers. Author Edward T. O’Donnell obviously did a tremendous job in researching this horrible disaster by going through thousands of pages of archiv material and old newspaper articles.

For readers only interested in the steamboat related part of the disaster, there are some chapters not too relevant as O’Donnell describes a lot of details from the families effected by the fire and also tells the story of Little Germany at New York at that time which was quite a big and living community before the General Slocum ended this era abruptly. Some of the scenes described are really heart-breaking and the whole story gives the reader a very good impression about how live was in New York around 1904.

The patient steamboats buff is being rewarded especially at the end of the book as O’Donnell describes all the details from the trials against the responsible officers, showing how corrupt the Steamboat Inspectors had been as well as how careless the steamboat’s owner and captain had been. It shows in detail all the shortcomings on the General Slocum that eventually led to this incredible disaster, including rotten life vests, unusable life boats, untrained and careless crew and much more.

Verdict: Perfect combination of very well researched facts and an entertaining style of writing.
It’s one of the most facinating books we’ve read about steamboat history so far and our rating clearly is
5 stars out of 5 for “Ship Ablaze – The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum” by Edward T. O’Donnell.

Ship Ablaze – The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum

May 15, 2008
by Franz Neumeier,