This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
On the morning of June 24, 1894, the Kirchner brothers — Charles, Frank, William and Gus — probably rode the elevated train from 72nd Street to what is today the East Village. On the way, they would’ve passed the headquarters of the Herring Fishing Club. They were members of the club, located inside of a tenement house at 55 First Avenue, but it’s possible that when they disembarked at the 1st Avenue station, they instead walked directly to Pier 6 on the East River, where they boarded the James D. Nichol, a tugboat the club had chartered for a daylong fishing trip.
Charles Kirchner reserved the boat with a $10 deposit; the remaining $40 would be paid after the trip with money the club collected from ticket sales.
Sources disagree on the number of passengers that boarded the tug that day, and whether it was 65, 75, 100, or 136. Whatever the case, the ship was carrying way more than allowed by law when it sank and took its passengers down with it. Like the fire aboard the General Slocum, which would happen 10 years later, the sinking of the Tug Nichol had a powerful impact on the neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.
The trip was meant to be a 10th anniversary celebration for the fishing club, part of the area’s rich German culture in the 19th century, what Eric Ferrara, in his 2009 book about Manhattan in the 19th century, called “the most densely populated two square miles on the face of the earth.”
The waves of German immigration to Kleindeutschland started in 1816. Fleeing tsarist Russia and wars in Eastern Europe, these first settlers brought welcome energy to Manhattan’s east side. Later, because of pogroms and religious intolerance, thousands more arrived in New York, the majority of them Jews, who also settled in the area. Both of these populations filled tenement houses and took up various professions. Some made clothes in their homes or factories; others worked in local bakeries, clothing stores and grocery stores.
Comparing East Village tenements to those in the Lower East Side, Richard Haberstroh has written that buildings above Houston Street tended to have “architectural touches” that made them more “pleasing to the eye” than their taller cousins to the south. In the same essay, Haberstroh wrote that Kleindeutschland was also more crowded.
By 1855, Manhattan was home to the third highest German-speaking population in the world. The German Odd Fellows Hall at 69 St. Marks Place, The German-American Shooting Society Clubhouse on the same street, the Ottendorfer Library on Second Avenue and the Herring Fishing Club were all places where immigrants gathered to foster relationships with one another and honor their cultural heritage. Lacking their own permanent meeting space, members of the Herring Club probably paid G.E. Guntzer, the building’s owner at the time, to hold meetings there.
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It’s possible that Levi Duryea, of Long Island, constructed 55 First Avenue to accommodate this mid-19th-century wave of German immigration. Duryea bought the property in 1841 from Stephen Whitney for $2,300. The plot remained empty for 16 years. According to historical tax assessments from Manhattan’s 17th ward, between 1857 and 1858, Duryea built a three-story building on this plot of land. That year’s tax assessment valued the property at $2,800. Duryea’s building remained three stories until 1863, when Elias Kratz bought the parcel and building and added two additional floors.
Although the lot changed hands many times throughout the next three decades, by the time of the James D. Nichols tugboat disaster in 1894, the building at 55 First Avenue looked the same as it had when Kratz remodeled it in the mid-1860s. The Herring Fishing Club may have met behind the retail space on the first floor, which today houses Brickman’s Hardware. Maybe they met in one of the 17 apartments above. Daniel Williams, a survivor of the Tug Nichols disaster, lived at 55 First Avenue; the club may have even met in his apartment.
Wealthier clubs like the German-American Shooting Society and the Odd Fellows Hall had enough money to build their own headquarters. Guided by “Friendship, Love and Truth,” the Odd Fellows protected orphans and widows and worked to “improve the character of man.” An inscription on the Shooting Society’s Clubhouse hints at the organization’s intention to build strength within the local German community. Perhaps the Herring Fishing Club also had loftier goals than socialization and jovial fishing trips. Other activities might have included service to neighborhood groups or pro bono concerts and parties.
What is known is that each summer, the Herring Club chartered a boat so that members and their friends could enjoy a day at sea. On June 24, 1894, their boat left Pier 6 at seven in the morning. According to a New York Times article from that year, the Nichol “passed down through the narrows and then moved over to the fishing banks of the Highlands, not far from Seabright. Here, those aboard fished until noon when the homeward start was made. As the tug proceeded toward the city, the wind freshened to some extent and the waves rolled higher.”
What happened next would be disputed from many points of view. The exact number of victims would never be determined either. One story even reported that several on board, all men, used the event to “disappear from their relatives and friends, leaving it to be supposed that they went down to a watery grave.”
The facts of the crash were these: Around 1 p.m., after a fishing day of “indifferent success” the boat started for port. A storm picked up and waves bombarded the boat. Passengers panicked when water washed across the deck. John Magele of 158 Stranton Street told reporters the next day, “The boat roll(ed) so deeply a great many of those on board began to think that her motions were too lively for safety.”
Deckhand Albert Hamman told investigators, “With the increased weight on one side she toppled over and the water ran into her at such an extent that it was thereafter impossible to navigate her.”
A New York Times reporter opined, “Overweighted by machinery…sitting low in the water…a tugboat of the usual type is such a veritable sailor’s coffin that no person of ordinary information and prudence would ever consent, at least for pleasure’s sake, to go in one of them outside sheltered waters.” The same writer said that all the people on board had done the equivalent of entrusting themselves to ride in a stage coach “drawn over a mountain by six horses driven by a baby.”
The “baby” was 25-year-old captain John C. Hyde, who testified before a board of Steamboat inspectors that he did not know the law required him to ascertain a special permit if he wanted to carry passengers. He was not even legally allowed to operate the tugboat in open water.
Two ships, the Algonquin and the Robert H. Sayre, saved about half the men from the capsized Nichol. Rescuers described “a mass of struggling humanity” moaning in the water near the sinking ship. Some men held on to the roof of the wheelhouse; when one slipped under water, a luckier one took his place.
Joseph Slattery, Captain of the Sayre, corroborated Captain Hyde’s version of what happened when he took the witness stand before Steamboat inspectors.
“What in your opinion caused the foundering of the Nichol?” investigators asked.
“Well, the people all crowded to one side of the boat; she shipped a sea and it was too heavy for her.”
Those employed in the maintenance of the Nichol testified that she was in good shape.
“How do you account for your disaster?” was a question posed to the captain.
“I account for it by our people all getting on the port side of the boat and shipping a sea.”
In other words, he blamed the event on panicked passengers avoiding the water that was crashing across the Nichols’ deck. He said the passengers would not listen to him when he gave them orders to balance their weight across the deck.
“Did you ever consider the Nicol in danger of foundering before?” investigators asked him.
“I did not,” was his answer.
“Did you ever have so many people out in her before?”
“I think we had more aboard her one Sunday when it was rough.”
“How do you account for the fact that so large a proportion of the crew were saved, and so large a proportion of the passengers were lost?”
“The crew were cool and sober, and many of the passengers were not.”
This observation brings up another report from the crash. One survivor said 12 kegs of beer were brought on board for the trip. Though the Nichols’ owner and several of the crew testified that Captain Hyde himself “was not a drinking man,” several of the survivors said a deckhand made repeated trips into the wheelhouse with beer. Others said that when the storm whipped up, Hyde was eating dinner and drinking instead of driving the boat. Twelve kegs of beer brought on board for a day’s worth of fishing would have been no small amount. Dr. Haberstroh, in his research on Kleindeutschland, wrote that Germans brought with them to America their expertise in beer brewing.
It definitely would have been a part of the Herring Fishing Club’s Sunday trip to not only bring 12 kegs of beer along but to consume them. It would have been the type of Sunday fun that seemed harmless until the high waves hit the side of the boat and covered the deck with water.
Estimates are that 25 to 35 passengers drowned when the Tug Nichols sank in 45 feet of water. Daniel Williams, a resident of 55 First Avenue, was one of the lucky survivors of the crash. Gus and William Kirchner, the youngest of the four Kirchner brothers leading the German social club, were not.
The tragedy came 10 years earlier than a more famous disaster that haunts the history of Little Germany. The fire aboard the General Slocum, a boat chartered by St. Marks Lutheran Church in 1904, claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people. The reach of that event was so vast that residents of Kleindeutschland would move north to Yorkville in order to escape the memory of all those lost lives.
The sinking of the Tug Nichol had nowhere near the cultural impact on the neighborhood as the fire aboard the General Slocum; however, the Tenement Acts of 1901 aimed at regulating life in buildings such as 55 First Avenue were the result of such civil oversight that allowed disasters like the sinking of the James D. Nichol to occur. Overloaded and under-regulated, this Sunday outing turned tragedy contributed to the heightened social consciousness that swept through the East Village in the first decades of the 1900s and redefined life for the residents living there.