Volume 75, Number 6 | June 28 - July 5, 2005

Villager photo by Bonnie Rosenstock
Frank Duffy, of the Maritime Industry Museum, with Eileen McCormack, placing a wreath for the unknown dead next to the Slocum memorial monument in Tompkins Square Park.
As the memory of Slocum fades, so does monument

By Bonnie Rosenstock

In contrast to last June’s media spotlight on the event-filled 100th anniversary of the General Slocum steamboat tragedy, which saw the largest weekend gathering of descendants of the deceased, survivors, rescuers and caregivers since 1930, this year’s ceremony at the Slocum memorial statue in Tompkins Square Park on Saturday morning, June 18, was very low key and succinct.

Father Arthur Wendel, pastor of the Most Holy Redeemer Church (founded in 1844), on E. Third St. between Avenues A and B, gave the invocation. Father Wendel, who was born on E. Fifth St. between A and B, noted that eight people from his Catholic parish perished on the Slocum along with the congregants from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on E. Sixth St.

Jack Linn, assistant Parks Department commissioner, of German descent and a resident of E. 11th St., offered a brief history of the accomplishments of Civil War General Henry Warner Slocum and Daniel D. Tompkins, governor of New York from 1807-1817, and vice president of the United States from 1817-1825, for whom the boat and park were respectively named.

Dave Garvey, of the Fire Department’s Emerald Society Bagpipe Band and a fireboat pilot, played plaintive songs while Eileen McCormack and Frank Duffy placed a wreath of 61 carnations next to the monument. The 61 carnations represent the unknown dead. McCormack’s grandmother Catherine Gallagher Connolly was 11 when she was rescued. She died in 2003 at the age of 109 and was the second-to-last survivor to pass away.

Frank Duffy, executive vice president of the Maritime Industry Museum SUNY-Maritime College at Ft. Schuyler, the Bronx, the moderator and organizer of the yearly event, and board member Reinaldo Perez, took this opportunity to announce their plans for next year’s celebration to the dozen or so attendees.

While the burning of the triple-decker side wheel General Slocum took the lives of more than 1,200 people, mostly women and children from Kleindeutsch-land, the German-American community of the Lower East Side/East Village on June 12, 1904, the pink Tennessee marble obelisk in Tompkins Square Park (on E. Ninth St., behind the park building) memorializing the nation’s largest peacetime maritime disaster was not erected until 1906.

What Duffy and Perez hope to create for the monument’s centenary, pending approval by the Department of Parks, is a one-third scale or slightly larger bronze relief replica of the original 9-foot stele. “Instead of touching the original, we want to have a hopefully 99 percent accurate to the original made and mounted on a separate piece of granite that will look something like a reverse bookend with an angle to it,” explained Perez, who originated the idea. “We would place the plaque with the lettering from the relief up on the granite, with a very small thing about how the Maritime Industry did this, etc. Then we would have this cemented and placed next to or near the original, so people could see what it looked like a long time ago.”

With the passage of time, the monument has lost many details, and the remaining engravings are eroding away. Perez pointed out the barely discernible outline of the General Slocum; the waterline is entirely gone. Still visible is the little boy holding a hoop and a stick, a typical toy of the era, and the little girl, both looking seaward, some greenery and the fading lettering, which reads, “They were the Earth’s purest, Children Young and Fair.” There are ways to restore the monument, acknowledged Perez, but he asks, “Do you touch the original? I would be more comfortable doing a restoration if I had in front of me the exact way it was in 1906. Could it be done? Yes, it can. But in my opinion, I’d rather not fool with it. It’s 100 years old, as it should be. Leave it alone,” he said.

Duffy, Perez and Bill Sokol, the museum’s curator, have been searching for detailed diagrams, drawings or pictures of the relief, but so far none have come to light. They have the original plans of the monument, sculpted by Bruno Louis Zimm, all the legal papers, documents from the defunct Sympathy Society of German Ladies, the organization that donated the monument, very detailed dimensions and even schematics.

“Even though we know what the ship looked like, we’re hoping that in some basement, attic or some very old family album, someone might have an original picture. There have even been articles in magazines and newspapers in Germany asking for information,” Perez said.

The Maritime Museum, established in 1986, has as one of its prime missions the remembrance of the Slocum disaster. The museum houses a permanent exhibit on the Slocum, which includes the only known model of the steamboat, a collection of vintage and contemporary photos, books and other memorabilia. At the time of its founding, the monument, as well as Tompkins Square Park, was in very poor condition. The lion spout and the fountain below the relief were broken. There was a lot of graffiti and paint that had to be removed.

“It was done very well,” stated Perez of the stele’s last renovation. “I give Frank a lot of credit for that. Still, when you remove that much of the wrong kind of [spray] paint, I’m sure that some definition was lost. But primarily, it’s simply 100 years old.”

Duffy raised $6,000 to restore the monument 11 years ago, and the Parks Department kicked in the rest. Nine years ago, he initiated the annual memorial service at the statue, which hadn’t been celebrated as far back as anyone could remember. Now Duffy and the Maritime Museum hope to raise $10,000 for the bronze replica. “We don’t need huge contributions from major donors; small contributions from many people would do,” said Perez.

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