Friday, July 10, 2009

General Slocum's legacy is safe on ocean floor

By RICHARD DEGENER Staff Writer, 609-463-6711 Posted: Friday, July 10, 2009

UPPER TOWNSHIP - A dredging project to bring sand to the severely eroded beaches in Strathmere will not disturb what remains of one of the worst maritime disasters in the nation's history.

Ron Sinn made sure of that.

The story begins several weeks ago when Sinn, a retired party boat captain in Wildwood and now a marine safety advocate, heard about the beach-replenishment project, which includes dredging sand from Corsons Inlet, set to begin this summer. Sinn studies significant maritime disasters. He has massive files on many of them.

Sinn knew that in 2000 the National Underwater and Marine Agency, or NUMA, located the wreck of the infamous excursion steamship General Slocum about one mile off Corsons Inlet.

At the time, Sinn tried unsuccessfully to convince people to put a memorial on the nearest beach to honor more than 1,000 people who died when the General Slocum caught fire in New York Harbor on June 15, 1904. Almost all the victims were women and children, German immigrants from New York City on a day excursion to Long Island chartered by St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

After the fire the General Slocum was converted to a barge named Maryland. It was hauling a load of coke when it sprung a leak off Atlantic City and sank here Dec. 4, 1911.

"It would be nice if they would put up a plaque," Sinn said in 2000.

Poor man's Titanic

Sinn still wants the plaque, but he recently turned his efforts to getting the wreck placed on the N.J. Register of Historic Places, since that would ensure the dredge would steer clear of it.

When he first contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said they didn't even know the General Slocum was out there. Even after it was renamed Maryland, Sinn noted crowds of people would meet it at the dock "singing and praying" following the disaster that had wiped out whole neighborhoods in Manhattan's "Little Germany" section.

It was the first big maritime disaster to fuel a public debate about safety at sea, and it made big headlines as William H. Van Schaick, the ship's captain, went to trial and President Theodore Roosevelt pressed for answers. This played out eight years before a more famous luxury liner hit an iceberg and took 1,523 lives, but the General Slocum has since come to be known in nautical circles as the "poor man's Titanic."

"I feel it was meant to be preserved," Sinn said. "It shouldn't be chopped up in a dredge."

Government acts

Sinn's effort led to a flurry of activity between the state DEP, including its Historic Preservation Specialist Vincent Maresca, and the Army Corps office in Philadelphia. Sinn sent them NUMA's 2000 report locating the wreck and the Army Corps' own 1912 report detailing the hiring of Atlantic City contractor Eugene Boehm to dynamite part of the wreck that had become a threat to navigation. Boehm was the low bidder at $1,442.

Both agencies responded to Sinn's request. The state even gave him forms to fill out to nominate the wreck for historic status. Sinn sent them coordinates of where the wreck is located.

"We're sharing information with the Army Corps to help ensure with the work they're doing that this shipwreck is avoided," DEP spokeswoman Darlene Yuhas said.

Army Corps spokeswoman Susan Anderson said all the coordinates were plotted - NUMA found the wreck partly by using old nautical charts detailing the proximity to now-defunct Ludlum Lighthouse - and the dredging will not threaten the wreck.

"The project will not have any impact on the General Slocum wreck. It's half a mile away from the farthest corner of the (sand) burrow site," Anderson said.

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For more information about the General Slocum, check out the article on The National Underwater and Marine Agency's website -

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