Friday, September 4, 2009

Ports of Departure: Hamburg, Liverpool, Libau

My four Polish grandparents left Europe for North America from three different ports—Libau, Bremen, and Liverpool—and sailed on four different shipping lines—Russian American, North German Lloyd, and White Star and Cunard, respectively. My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother arrived in New York, at Ellis Island; my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother arrived in Boston.

In previous posts, I attempted to put my grandparents’ experiences in context by linking them to their extended families and their close friends in “migration chains” from 1901 through 1914. Who left for America when? Who welcomed them when they arrived in Worcester, or Maynard, or Lowell? In examining the ships’ manifests for these 46 people, I have developed the following data.

Favored lines and ports

Emigrants by gender: 36 male, 10 female
Shipping line used: Hamburg-American, 20; Russian American, 6; White Star, 6; Holland America, 5; Cunard, 4; North German Lloyd, 2; Red Star, 2; Montreal Ocean, 1
Port of departure: Hamburg, 20; Liverpool, 11; Libau, 6; Rotterdam, 5; Bremen, 2; Antwerp, 1; Glasgow, 1
Port of arrival: New York, 30; Boston, 16

Some correlations are inherent. Shipping lines based their operation in specific ports, with other specific ports constituting their itineraries. They changed their transatlantic routes somewhat over the years, adding or dropping ports as intermediate or final destinations to accommodate business volume and other circumstances. For example, the Russian American Line sailed out of Libau (now Liepaja, Latvia) for Rotterdam and New York, and occasionally Copenhagen and/or Halifax. The Hamburg-American Line was (not surprisingly) based in Hamburg; its North Atlantic routes variously included stops in England and France before reaching New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Quebec, or Montreal.

Women and children to Boston

One particular fact in my family/friends statistics intrigues me: eight of the ten women arrived in Boston, and only two in New York. Of the latter, one (Petronella Bowszys) was married and in the company of her husband and child. The other was my grandmother, Anna Blaszko, single, 20, and traveling independently. Seven of the eight Boston arrivals (single/married women and young girls) traveled on the White Star and Cunard lines, with embarkations at Liverpool, and one on the Montreal Ocean line, boarding at Glasgow.

What does this signify, if anything? I’m still mulling this. Boston, of course, was much closer to their final destinations in eastern and central Massachusetts than was New York. Perhaps it was simply more convenient (closer, faster, cheaper) for their husbands, brothers, uncles, and/or cousins to meet them at the dock in Charlestown or East Boston than at Ellis Island. Perhaps, having experienced steerage conditions themselves, the men wanted to provide their wives, children, and other female relatives as much comfort and security as they could afford. (Cunard’s third-class passengers shared small, simple 4-6-person cabins, rather than cramped, barracks-style quarters; White Star had fairly new ships.)

In any event, arrival in Boston seems preferable to the women and children negotiating their final 200 miles by train from New York to Massachusetts alone. I imagine that being met in Boston and escorted directly to their new home in America would have been a joyous relief, especially for my grandmother Stefania and her sister-in-law Maria, who at that point would have traveled with very young children for thousands of miles for more than two weeks.

From village to voyage

Wherever any of these 46 emigrants began the transatlantic voyage, they needed first to travel from their inland villages to their port of choice. How did they get from Russian Poland’s Lida area—roughly east of Grodno and south of Wilno (today, Vilnius, Lithuania)—to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, or the British Isles?

I’ve heard and read many people’s accounts of their Polish ancestors traveling on foot or by wagon from village to port. To me, that seems most feasible if they lived in the Prussian (German) partition of Poland, or possibly even the Austrian partition (i.e., Galicia). However, it was 625 miles from Lida to Hamburg, and 1,150 miles—part of it across the North Sea—to Liverpool. Even Libau, the closest port, was 265 miles distant.

While I certainly believe my ancestors were as intrepid and adventurous as anyone’s, I’m inclined to think they probably relied on trains for a good part of the overland journey. By 1900, a network of railroad lines extended throughout the western Russian provinces and Europe. Trains linked Wilno and Grodno, and the smaller Lida area towns between them, to the Baltic coast to the north, as well as to Bialystok, Warsaw, and other points westward.

It was possible to arrange rail transport in tandem with ship. As emigration became increasingly big business in the early 20th century, shipping lines became increasingly competitive and sophisticated in marketing themselves to potential customers, even customers with the very limited means of peasant farmers. The companies set up ticket agencies in major eastern European cities. They packaged itineraries to provide tickets for train and ship, plus portside accommodations. An all-inclusive package could be very appealing: all segments were paid and all critical decisions were made in advance. (Similar in concept, really, to driving or flying to a port to board a cruise ship today.)

Shipping line services

The Cunard and White Star lines were notable among companies that offered such packages. Emigrants would take a small “feeder” ship, operated by the Wilson Line, from a Baltic or other northern port to Hull (or some smaller city) on the northeast coast of England. From Hull, a train would carry the emigrants west to Liverpool, where they would finally board a large passenger ship to cross the Atlantic.

The Hamburg-American Line offered similar services, with the transatlantic passage originating right in Hamburg. More than half of my grandparents’ relatives and friends used the Hamburg-American Line. In fact, in that era, Hamburg was Europe’s busiest port of emigration, surpassing formerly dominant Bremen.

Rather different from its competition was the Russian American Line, based in Libau. For people leaving the western provinces of imperial Russia, Libau—210 miles northwest of the city of Wilno, or 265 miles from Lida—was the nearest port, and it was directly accessible via the Libau-Romny rail line. Accommodations, however, were rough, and perhaps considered more suitable to males than to unaccompanied female travelers.

No documents survive in my family to establish with certainty how my grandparents traveled from their Lida area villages to their ports of departure. As with so many aspects of their lives, my conjectures far outnumber my facts.

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