The Tragedy That Spurred The Start Of Drowning Prevention In America

During the turn of the 20th Century sports and exercise had come into fashion. None more so than swimming. But as more people flocked to the beach the rates of people drowning soared. By 1900, over 9,000 Americans were drowning each year.

It was a tragic accident that made Americans see the necessity of learn to swim programs to prevent further tragedies. On June 15, 1904, the steamship, General Slocum, was taking a group of mostly women and children from St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church on a day long trip up New York City's East River to Long Island for a picnic. Shortly after leaving dock the single cylinder steamboat caught fire and sank.

1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died, most from drowning. It took less than twenty minutes for the ship to burn, “Learn to swim,” commanded newspaper headlines across the country. Most Americans at the time could not swim. "That should be the resolve of every intelligent woman who does not already know how, upon reading the pitiful story of how woman after woman on that fateful June 15 was drowned within a few feet of the shore, in a few feet of water. The ability to swim a few strokes or even to keep themselves afloat for a few minutes would have saved their lives.” said a New York Herald Editorial.

As a response to the disaster high school and prep schools built pools and required students to take swim lessons. American colleges with pools required students under the age of 21 to pass a swimming test before graduation.