Sunday, November 20, 2011

Crossing the Atlantic as a Steerage Passenger

When Albert, Lydia, and Fred Elsner immigrated to America from Germany in 1887, Albert was 30, Lydia was 32 (and 7 1/2 months pregnant), and Fred was 1 1/2. They left from Rotterdam as steerage passengers on the SS Rotterdam on February 15, 1887 and arrived at the Port of New York, 2 weeks later on March 1, 1887. They passed through Castle Gardens and most likely took a train to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

I wondered what the voyage to America was like for passengers that traveled in steerage so I have done a lot of research about it. The following is some of what I learned and what they might have experienced.

Preparing to emigrate to America was no small task. Many families had to scrimp and save for years in order to put aside enough money to pay for the fare. It often cost the equivalent of over one-third a laborer's annual income to bring an average-sized family to America. The cost was about $18 for steerage on a sailing ship, however, from the 1870's on, the price for steerage on a steamship rose to about $30.

They had to decide what to bring with them. There was limited space available on their voyage, and there was only room for the bare necessities. This often consisted of clothes, tools (if the family's livelihood came from a skilled trade), a family Bible or other family heirlooms, and basic provisions for the trip. Albert Elsner and his family took 2 trunks and 2 beds with them.

Before heading to the designated port of departure, emigrants bid farewell to their families and friends. This was hard because they knew they would probably never see them again.

The next step was getting from their home to a major port. This was often done on foot, but many traveled by cart, train, or river boat. Emigrants traveling by river boat could take the Rhine river to Rotterdam, the Elbe to Hamburg, or the Wesser to Bremen/Bremerhaven. Albert and his family left from Rotterdam, so it is very possible that they took a river boat down the Rhine river.

Once they reached the port of departure, they may have to wait several days, weeks, months, or even years before actually boarding a ship to America.

They had to pass a medical inspection before boarding the ship to ensure a certain level of health. This was to prevent the spread of disease while on board as well as to prevent diseases from being carried to the destination country. Physical exams and eye exams (to make sure they did not have trachoma, a chronic conjunctivitis) sometimes held up emigrants for days or even an entire week.

Up until the 1850's, most emigrants came by sailing ships, with an average voyage lasting 43 days. Steamships, which made sailing ships obsolete by the end of the 1870's, shortened the voyage to 12-14 days. Steamships began replacing sailing ships as early as 1850, although some emigrants continued to choose sailing ships for nearly thirty years because of the cheaper fare.

The majority of immigrants traveled in steerage because it was the cheapest way to travel. Steerage was originally the deck immediately below the main deck of a sailing ship. The name "steerage" came from the fact that the control lines of the rudder ran on this level of the ship. The "steerage", or between-deck, was often shortened to "tween-deck". The German term is "zwischendeck". On steamships, the term "steerage" was used for any part of a ship allotted to those passengers who traveled at the cheapest rate, usually the lower decks of the ship. Around the turn of the century it became more common to use the term "3rd class" for the low price accommodation, and some ships even had "4th class".

In the early days of emigration, the ships used to transport the emigrants were originally built for carrying cargo. So in reality, these passengers were placed in the cargo hold. To get down to the "tween-deck", the passengers often had to use ladders, and the passageway down between the hatches could be both narrow and steep. (Think about Lydia being about 7 1/2 months pregnant climbing down that ladder!)

Living conditions in steerage were often primitive. Space and privacy were both hard to come by. The ceiling height was usually 6-8 feet. The passengers slept in narrow, closely packed bunks set up along both sides of the ship and larger ships had bunks down the middle as well. There was only a small corridor between the bunks. The bunks were usually double-deck beds about 18 inches wide and 6 feet long. Sometimes, they were up to four rows high! The mattress in the bunk (if there was a mattress) was usually very thin and filled with straw or seaweed. Often times, the emigrant would bring their own mattress. The ship sometimes provided a blanket which was much like a horse blanket. There were no pillows, but a life preserver was on each bunk and sometimes the emigrant would use it as a pillow. There was one toilet for every 100 passengers and it was usually located above deck. The steerage passengers were divided into 3 different categories and accommodated 3 separate compartments. The front compartment was usually reserved for single men, the middle for married couples and families, and the single women were in a compartment as far away from the single men as possible. There were long tables located in the common space in each compartment where meals were usually served.

Food on board did not contain a great deal of variety. The crew would feed them lukewarm soup, boiled potatoes, and stringy beef. As the century progressed, various countries began regulating food on ships more closely. The British Passenger Act set some minimum requirements for food on board ships that included items such as biscuits, wheat flour, oatmeal, rice, tea, sugar, and molasses. The captain had to ensure that each passenger received three quarts of water daily. Passengers could bring additional provisions, and many did. The passengers had to bring their own bowls and utensils as these were usually not provided by the ship.

Seasickness was a constant companion for many travelers. Although some people adjusted to the constant rocking and bouncing of the ship, others spent the entire trip nearly bedridden with nausea.

Ventilation in steerage could be a problem, especially during bad weather. Most sailing ships were only ventilated through vents or portholes. During bad weather, the vents or portholes had to be closed to prevent the ship from taking on water. On many ships, these vents were also the only source of light, so if they were closed, it would be pitch-black down there. Because of the fire hazard, oil lamps could not be used during bad weather. Chamber pots were used because the toilets were above deck and could not be reached during a storm. And it did not help that most people got seasick in bad weather. Those who were not seasick were made sick from the stench of vomit and unemptied chamber pots. The stench in the "tween-deck" was so bad that the crew-members did not want to go there. To purify the air, the first mate would dip a red-hot iron into a pail of tar and the smoke and steam from the bubbling tar helped to deaden the worst stench. On some ships, air was cleansed with the steam from chlorine and vinegar.

Life was not all drudgery though. Reasons for celebration such as marriages and births occurred on board. In addition, travelers found time for fun, sometimes dancing on deck, writing letters home, or playing games. Despite the difficulties, many were excited by the adventure and the approach of their new home.

More than mundane food and cramped sleeping quarters were the life-threatening dangers encountered at sea. The most obvious was the possibility of shipwreck. Due to poor ship construction, shipwrecks were a very real threat, particularly in the early 1800's. In 1834, for example, 17 ships were lost at sea. By the middle and end of the century though, ships had become larger and safer, partly due to increased government regulations.

In reality, disease killed many more emigrants at sea than shipwrecks did. Illnesses often spread throughout the ships in epidemic proportions due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions. Typhys, cholera, and dysentery were some of the biggest threats.

However, for emigrants, the voyage to America was an important and memorable experience. It was not only the changes that arrival in America brought to their lives, but the very trip itself that made a lasting impression on their lives.

Once the ship reached New York Harbor, it was subject to quarantine inspections. Incoming ships were anchored near Staten Island. Passengers were examined and if any were found sick, they were sent to the quarantine hospital on Staten Island. If there was an epidemic problem on board, the whole ship could be quarantined.

After clearing quarantine, the ship would move forward into New York Harbor where first class passengers were let off at a pier and then to Castle Gardens where the steerage passengers disembarked. The steerage passengers were offloaded onto a barge that carried them to shore.

The complex that made up the Castle Gardens immigration center included outbuildings, a hospital, and offices and was enclosed by a large wooden fence. It was located across from the Statue of Liberty on an island off the southwest tip of Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886. So Albert, Lydia, and Fred would have seen her when they arrived in America on March 1, 1887.

At Castle Gardens, the immigrants reported their names and destinations which were checked against the ship manifest and they passed through customs. They could purchase train tickets, exchange money, seek out directions, learn about employment opportunities, and use other services. There was a telegraph office and mail service. Many immigrants had letters waiting for them containing money for the next step of their journey. There were two wash rooms, one for men and one for women. There was hot water, soap, and towels. There were no sleeping quarters, but the immigrants were permitted to sleep on the floor for a couple of nights until they got their bearings. Sometimes as many as 3,000 spent the night. These services were provided partly in an effort to shield them from the thieves and opportunists who hung around the harbor waiting to prey upon the ill-informed and sometimes desperate people that flowed into the country. Also, exams given at Castle Gardens served as a way to screen people and prevent those with contagious diseases from entering the country.

Many immigrants stopped in New York City, making this their home.  However, many more would make their way to the trains and boats headed westward.  No trains to the west terminated in Manhattan. They would have to get from Castle Garden to the train stations in New Jersey where Jersey City and Hoboken were the terminals for the trains headed west, northwest, and south. Eventually, there was a barge transfer from Castle Garden directly to Jersey City and Hoboken to the Erie Railway.  Albert and his family most likely went by train to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

No comments: