The General Slocum worked as a passenger ship taking people on excursions around New York City. On June 15, 1904, over 1,300 passengers, mostly women and children, were traveling on the East River when a fire of unknown origin started. The ship had no emergency equipment to put out the fire or evacuate the ship, but Captain William Van Schaick decided to continue his course rather than run the ship aground or stop at a nearby landing. (Van Schaick would later argue he was attempting to prevent the fire from spreading to riverside buildings.) Some passengers attempted to jump into the river, but the clothing of the day made swimming almost impossible.
By the time the General Slocum reached shore, an estimated 1,021 passengers had been killed by fire or drowning. Van Schaick and the rest of the crew suffered no fatalties. Van Schaick was arrested and sentenced to ten years imprisonment (later reduced to three). The Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the ship, paid a relatively light fine despite evidence they may have falsified inspection records. The remains of the General Slocum were recovered and converted into a barge which sank in a storm in 1911. The disaster motivated federal and state regulation to improve the emergency equipment on passenger ships.