Americans have short memories. Very short, extraordinarily myopic at times.
Sometimes thought of as the Golden Age in American history, the years from the end of Civil War Reconstruction up until the opening salvo of the First World War was a time we like to think of as “the good old days.”
It conjures up images of America’s trek westward, of cattle drives and wagon trains, trolleys and bustling cities, of parasols and grand Fourth of July picnics by a lake.
Yet, when you delve back into that history, when you take off the rose-colored glasses, the good old days were not very good.
Oh, there was growth and prosperity and booming business. But there was much sadness and death, as well.
Today, some constantly bemoan laws and regulations, ordinances and rules that govern our seeming every move. Yet, in the Golden Age, there were few rules and fewer regulations — and death stalked Americans at every turn.
Before laws became the standard rather than the exception in the Old West, towns everywhere west of the Mississippi River were rife with killings, drunkenness and bawdy behavior. A citizen of an Old West town stood a fair chance of dying from a stray gunshot from a drunken saloon-goers pistol, one of the untold number of people who packed a gun on their hip in the day. Or, from one of the seemingly endless fires that ravaged towns from St. Louis to San Francisco.
But it was the period of years after 1900, up until the Great War, that saw a lack of laws, a lack of regulation, paint America with a brush of indifference to human life.
Two incidents that many, or should I say most, Americans probably have never heard about characterized the end of America’s so-called Golden Age.
It was a warm June in 1904 when the General Slocum, a passenger steamboat named after a Civil War general, was operating out of New York City. The steam-driven, side-wheel ship had three decks, water-tight compartments and was fitted with electric lights, one of the new-fangled amenities of the day.
But on that June day and carrying 1,342 people on board — mostly members of Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church — the General Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River.
Of its passengers and crew, 1,021 died in the disaster, one of the worst in terms of loss of life until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.
Short years later, in March 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in America’s largest city struck the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
An unregulated industry at that time in our history, the owners of the Triangle factory had locked the doors to stairwells and exits, a common practice of the day to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks by the approximately 500 workers, who earned from $7 to $12 a week toiling within its walls — mostly young women down to 14-year-old girls.
The fire created a perfect hell for those inside, as young women and a few men were overcome by smoke and intense heat — many jumping to their deaths from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors to the streets below.
Firefighters were hampered at the fire scene because of falling bodies from the upper floors.
Sadly, some 146 garment workers perished in the conflagration. And worse, the owners were acquitted at trial of manslaughter, although they did lose many subsequent civil lawsuits.
But history records this disaster as a major step in rights for workers, and regulation to keep some businesses from ignoring even the most basic safety regulations we take for granted today.
Some of the upshots of the disaster were shortened work hours (down to 54 hours a week), fire escapes, easy entrance and egress to large buildings and factories, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, fire alarms and improved safety in general, after public outrage over the loss of life finally caught up to industry of the day.
As for the General Slocum disaster, the ship’s captain ultimately was found responsible by a jury — found guilty of negligence and sentenced to 10 years in New York’s famous Sing Sing prison.
The boat’s owners were found to have allowed fire hose on the ship to rot, which fell apart when the crew tried to extinguish the fire, lifeboats tied up, painted in place or wired up and inaccessible. Parents threw children into the water to save them from fire, only to see them sink and drown because of shoddy life preservers.
The disaster motivated both federal and state regulations to improve emergency equipment on all passenger ships of the day.
Yet, these great catastrophes were lost to history just over a year later, when RMS Titanic set a new standard for the term “disaster.”
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.