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Chapter 8:

The largest, the fastest and most comfortable ships - by steamship across the ocean

"As far as the journey is concerned, whether one travel by sail or steamship, I prefer steam freight for my part".....
(By BÝrge Solem)

Passengers on a sailship could never know how long the journey would take. They were subject to wind and weather. The average crossing time on a sailing ship from Norway to America was 53 days. A fifty day journey below the deck of a sailing ship was no pleasure trip. The emigrants who crossed the Atlantic ocean by sail were largely left up to chance. According to the statistics the slowest sailing ships used about 100 days on the crossing, while the fastest voyages were down to about 25 days from Norway to America. In 1865 the Allan Line steamship Belgian (capt. Brown) served on a route between Liverpool and Quebec, under normal conditions the crossing time was only 12 days. In 1870 the Blue Riband of the North Atlantic was held by the steamship City of Paris of the Inman Line, after a record crossing from Queenstown to New York in 8 days, 4 hours and 1 min. ( 2.800 nm ). By 1879 the Blue Riband of the North Atlantic was held by the S/S Arizona after crossing from Queenstown to New York in 7 days, 10 hours and 22 min. ( 2.800 nm ). Even though passage on a steamship in 1867 costed about three times more than passage on a sailship, more and more chose to travel by steam each year. The steamship companies could tempt passengers with a safer and quicker crossing, with food included in the price. It did not take long before the sailships lost out in competition with the steamships. In 1874 the last two sailships sailed from Norway to Quebec. There were no Norwegian steamship companies to compete for passengers to America. However, an attempt was made in Bergen to establish a Norwegian line. The Norwegian American Steamship Co. maintained a direct steam ship connection between Norway and New York in the 1870s. But the service lasted only from 1871 to 1875, when it was discontinued because it was not profitable. This was partly due to a sharp decrease in the number of emigrants about the year 1874. Emigration took place in waves and at this time there was a decline. When emigration was finally on the upswing again, no Norwegian shipowners were willing to take a chance. In Denmark, on the other hand, the Thingvalla Line was established in 1880. The company aimed its marketing also toward Norwegians and could offer direct connections between Copenhagen, Christiania (later Oslo), Christiansand (Kristiansand) and New York.

The large foreign companies quickly built up their own network of agents across the whole country. Strong competition grew between the companies, which resulted in reduced prices. At times the agents carried on quite intensive advertising for the lines they represented. During the early years, the advertising campaigns were often characterized by negative comments about competitors. This was also the fact in Trondheim in 1870, when the agents of the Anchor Line and Allan Line had a newspaper campaign going on blaming each other not be trustworthy.

Allan Line advert
Advert for the Allan Line in the Trondheim Newspaper
"Trondhjems Adressecontors efterretninger"

This soon brought the whole business into discredit. The price war had also reached a level that was about as much as the companies could stand. As a result of this an association of Norwegian general agents together produced a set of ethical directives in 1871. These stated that the agents of the shipping companies should not make derogatory statements about the other companies. Owners of the larger companies also agreed on minimum prices for the crossing. A list of these prices was to be posted in a visible location at agency offices.

Rules and Regulations governing Agent activities, points 2 and 3:
2. No agent is permitted, either directly or indirectly, to sell tickets at a lower price than those listed, nor must any agent make any offers, promises or expectations regarding a reduction in price. On the contrary, agents are required at all times to explain to the emigrants in a clear and understandable manner that all agents are obligated to adhere to predetermined prices and conditions.

3. Agents are forbidden to speak, write or conduct themselves in a discourteous or unbecoming manner toward other members of the Association and other Lines or their representatives, nor must they be personally engaged in making public any such derogatory statements.

After this, ads concentrated for the most part on how quick and comfortable the ships were. A new law was passed in 1869 concerning the transporting of passengers to foreign parts of the world. This law was intended to protect the emigrants against trickery from the agents. According to the law, the agents had to have police authorization and the shipowners had to provide a considerable sum of money to guarantee the wellbeing of the passengers. According to the law, the agents had to sign a written contract with the emigrants. The contract was to specifically state everything included in the ticket. Before the contract was valid, it had to be presented to the police chief who then signed the contract with the agent and the emigrant. At the same time the emigrants were entered in the police register of emigrants including details about the agent or line responsible for the contract. This prevented the agents from making false promises to the emigrants. If the agents were guilty of breaking the law, they could lose their credentials. Their authorization had to be renewed annually.

Paragraph 6 in the "Law concerning control of conveying emigrants to foreign destinations":

    The agent is to produce a written contract for each emigrant that includes specific and detailed information concerning predetermined conditions about the manner and to which destination the emigrant and his clothing shall be transported, whether the, and the extent to which the shipping line is obligated to maintain the emigrant if the ship, because of misfortune, should have to remain in port, or his further transportation in case of shipwreck or if, for health reasons, he be unable to complete the journey, as well as what compensation of the emigrant is paid or shall be paid. Any other conditions, that for practical reasons should be given further clarification, shall be left up to the King to determine. Any agreement that the journey be paid for in total or in part by the performance of labor following arrival at the foreign destination is null and void, and will result in a fine for the agent in accordance with paragraph 10. The contract shall be presented to the Chief of Police and must bear his signature, the document then being handed over to the emigrant who, if possible, should personally be present to receive it.

From the mid-1870s and until the first decade of the following century, the most common travel route for Norwegian emigrants was via Hull, England. There were steamship connections to Hull from several Norwegian ports. The Wilson Line carried passengers from Norway to England. The company gained a near monopoly position in the feeder service of emigrants between Norway and the British Isles. This was due, in part, to the fact that agreements were reached between the Wilson Line and other large shipping companies. Because of its size, the Wilson Line could offer continuous and regular service, and Norwegian companies were unable to compete. There were also a number of Norwegian emigrants who traveled from Germany to New York on German vessels. It was especially between 1880 to 1895 that a number of Norwegians traveled via Hamburg. They left Norway with ships of Det Søndenfjelds -- Norske Dampskibsselskab, and from Germany with the Hamburg-American Line, or North German Lloyd. In 1893 The German Hamburg-American Line attempted to establish a direct route between Kristiansand and New York, but this lasted only till 1896. Then another attempt was made in 1904 under the name Scandia Line. Some very few Norwegian emigrants also traveled via Holland. All in all the German and Dutch companies transported only a small fraction of the Norwegian emigrants.

The majority of those who emigrated from Norway were from rural districts. The first lap of the journey to America was therefore from the rural community to the closest city. The cities from which the greatest number of emigrants departed were Oslo, Kristiansand, Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim. At times, there were a number who left from smaller towns.

Most often tickets were ordered beforehand, and many received tickets from America. But every passenger had to go via the shipping company agent, whether they had received a ticket or not. The emigrants had to be in town no later than one day before departure. When the emigrants showed up, they were usually received the agents or their assistants. These met as a group on the dock or at the railroad station, and guided the emigrants to the shipping company office. Here the baggage was marked and made ready for loading on the steamship. The ticket was paid for and the contract gotten ready. Then it was off to the police station where the contract was signed and names entered into the emigrant register. Men who were of age for military service (age 22-36) had to provide documentation that they had permission to emigrate, or discharge papers, military authorities. Male emigrants below the age of military conscription had to present a certificate signed by their local district commissioner. Both men and women had to present their certificate of baptism.

When all the formalities were completed, the emigrants had to find lodgings for the night. Many of the agents had agreements with specific hotels and boarding houses, and arranged lodgings for the emigrants. They also exchanged currency and made out foreign drafts. On the day of departure the emigrants had to gather outside the office of their respective agent. From there they were led to the ship and assigned a place on board. There was usually a large gathering of people on the docks who had come to bid farewell to friends and relatives. The trip from Oslo to Hull normally took three days and from Trondheim about four days.

The interior of the early steamships was not very different from that of the sail ships. This was the case both for the ships to England and to America. The steerage was usually divided into two or three large sections. On board the Wilson Line steamer S/S Angelo, the bunks are described as long two-story shelves. These were not deep enough for a person to stretch out completely. An inspector who carried out an inspection during the crossing from Oslo to Hull in 1881, reported that the emigrants slept in whatever clothing they were wearing. He also saw several people who slept with their hats on, and no one removed their shoes. One man even slept in his raincoat. The food the emigrants required during the crossing was included in the ticket. Toilet conditions were nothing to brag about and were often up on deck. The crossing over the North Sea could be very rough in bad weather, and many people suffered from seasickness. As a rule, passengers were not permitted on deck when it was dark or during bad weather. Reports state that even passengers accustomed to the sea would get sick, not because of the sea, but because of the terrible stench of vomit. On some of the ships there were spaces between the deck boards along the sides of the ship so the deck could be hosed down and the impure water removed with pumps. On other ships, carbolic acid was poured on the deck that was then covered with sawdust. The sawdust was removed and replaced each day. Both ventilation and illumination was generally better on the steam ships than on the sail ships.

The steerage on a North German Lloyd steamship,
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The menu on board the ship to England was basically the same as the menu on board the ship to America. Passengers could drink all the water they wanted. Advertisements from the Anchor Line promised that passengers would receive the following during the entire passage from Norway to New York:

    ". . . so much of the best food, properly prepared, as they could eat, namely: Breakfast 9 a.m.: Tea, coffee or hot chocolate, sugar, bread and butter or biscuits and butter. Dinner, 1 p.m.: Soup, beef or pork with potatoes, with plum pudding on Sundays. Supper 6 p.m. Tea, coffee or hot chocolate, sugar, bread and butter or biscuits and butter."

An emigrant who traveled with this company described the food on board in a letter he sent home in 1869:

    ". . . for supper there was always at sea sweet tea without milk in it and dry hard biscuits or Ship's bread, and the same for breakfast. There was butter, but it was so rancid that we could not digest it. For dinner, meat, but their was no taste to the soup or for us Norwegians it had a disgusting taste, and the meat was as salty as herring. One day we had salted fish with a dash of soup, but it was inedible for most of us and it was just to dump our portions into the sea."

Another emigrant wrote the following account about his journey to America with the Guion Line steamship Idaho from Liverpool in 1869:

    " . . . You can imagine what an unpleasant journey it was with over 1,100 emigrants crammed together; most of us were treated worse than wild animals. We hardly ate anything at the start of the journey since we are not pigs, but when we began to understand the situation and our own provisions were not enough, we had to accept the food that the pigs ate . . . when we walked on deck the muck went over our shoes and into the meat container; one should wash it but the Irishmen had washed their children's messes and night pots first . . ."

The Wilson Line had departures from Oslo on Fridays and arrived in Hull on Sunday evening or Monday morning. The emigrants were met in Hull by agents representing the companies where they had purchased tickets. As a rule, there were passengers on the same ship that were to travel on from England with ships belonging to various companies. Passengers were responsible for seeing to it that their baggage got on the right ship. There were organized gangs of baggage thieves in port that they had to guard against. In Hull the emigrants were taken to large waiting halls provided by the shipping companies. They usually received food and drink while they waited for the train that was to take them further. To avoid problems, the authorities in Hull wanted the emigrants sent off as quickly as possible. From Hull there were train connections to Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Southampton. The most common route went via Liverpool, about a seven-hour train ride. The transatlantic steamers departed from England on different days, and the emigrants often had to wait several days in England. They were housed at emigrant hotels owned by the shipping companies. The stay in England was regarded by most as the greatest disadvantage of the journey since this cost money and unnecessarily lengthened the time of the trip. In large cities such as Liverpool, the emigrants could also be exposed to many dangers. From Liverpool the ships went to Ireland to pick up yet more passengers. From there the ships headed for the open seas.

A number of large steamers were always docked in the port city of Liverpool and there was always a great deal of activity. The harbor area was well suited to emigrant traffic. When the Norwegian emigrants boarded the large steamships, they were suddenly brought into contact with emigrants from other parts of Europe. Cultural differences made it difficult to live so close together, and the relationship between passengers could sometimes be strained. There are also accounts stating that passengers were sometimes treated badly by members of the crew. Language could also lead to problems, but most ships had a Scandinavian interpreter on board. It was usual that ethnic groups were kept separate from others and placed in their own quarters. Unmarried men had a section of their own, and unmarried women were either placed in their own section or together with families. It did happen that families were separated on board because passengers were divided according to sex. Passengers had to supply their own bedding. This method of transporting steerage passengers, remained more or less the same until the end of the 1890s. As competition grew between the shipping companies, conditions gradually improved for the passengers, yet strangely enough, there are few complaints from the emigrants concerning conditions on board these ships. The reason may be that they were not accustomed to much comfort. As the companies built new ships, standards were raised and conditions improved for the emigrants.

When the Danish Thingvalla Line opened for traffic in 1880, they advertised that the ships had Scandinavian crews and food, and that they sailed directly from Copenhagen to New York via Christiania (later Oslo) and Christiansand (Kristiansand). This company grew in popularity, but experienced a number of misfortunes -- which was not exactly good for business. In addition to several minor accidents, the S/S Hekla (1) sank near Færder in 1883, the S/S Thingvalla and the S/S Geiser collided in 1888 with a loss of 105 lives, and that same year the S/S Danmark was shipwrecked. The worst catastrophe was the loss of the S/S Norge in 1904, when 604 persons lost their lives. The ships of the Thingvalla Line were not as fast or as comfortable as were those of the competitors, with the result that the Thingvalla Line never posed a serious threat to the other transatlantic lines.

Thingvalla Line Thingvalla Line

This booklet was issued by the Thingvalla Line in 1887, and gives an interesting insight in the progress of emigration. This is promotional pamphlet which was forwarded to potential travelers and emigrants. The booklet is written in Danish and Swedish, and is partly translated to English here. It gives a short introduction of the company, and it's fleet. It gives a short description of the conditions aboard the ships with details about the menu on the different classes. It has many details about the different matters an emigrant should be concerned with in connection with the purchase of tickets, the ocean travel, the arrival to Castle Garden and the inland voyage. There are also many interesting pictures.

In 1881 the White Star Line presented its newest ship, the S/S Arabic. The S/S Arabic was built by Harland & Wolf Ltd. in Belfast, and had a tonnage of 4 368 gross tons, almost twice as big as the steamship Thingvalla. It had three decks and three masts, so that it could use sails if necessary. The combination of sail and steam was common up to the close of the century. Two engines with a total of four pistons had 550 horsepower. The ships of the White Star Line could cross the Atlantic in 7 to 8 days, while the ships of the Thingvalla Line used twice the time. The steerage on board the Arabic was divided into three sections, each with its own entrance. There were water closets in all the sections. Single men were quartered on the lowest forward deck, and there was a salon between them and the deck for married couples. The section for single women was aft in the ship. They were completely separated from the other passengers and there were matrons who kept an eye on them. There was also a physician on board and a sick bay in each of the sections. There were, in addition, two sick bays on the top deck to be used for passengers with contagious diseases. The beds were made of canvas and could be removed when not in use during the day, making room for tables and chairs. The sections were each equipped with a little kitchenette where the passengers could make tea or coffee. Provisions were made to care for seasick and bedridden passengers. There was a separate promenade deck for the steerage passengers forward and one astern on the ships, while the amidships section was reserved for saloon passengers. There was a conscious effort to separate the different classes of passengers.

The price for steerage passage on an Allan Line ship from Trondheim to Quebec in 1867 was 40 speciedaler (160 kroner). In 1878 the same ticket cost 175.69 kroner. The Cunard Line from Trondheim to Boston on third class cost 166 kroner in 1900, while in 1903 the same ticket cost 113 kroner. The price of a second class ticket was 228 kroner. Prices also depended to some extent on the type of ship.


The Transatlantic Crossing -

 -  Chapter 1:   Early Norwegian Emigrants
 -  Chapter 2:   Steerage Passengers - Emigrants Between Decks
 -  Chapter 3:   By sail across the ocean - daily life aboard
 -  Chapter 4:   Children of the ocean - life and death on the Atlantic
 -  Chapter 5:   Sailing ship provisions - Food and drink
 -  Chapter 6:   Sanitary conditions on board - health and sickness on emigrant ships
 -  Chapter 7:   From sail to steam
 -  Chapter 8:   The largest, the fastest and most comfortable ships - by steamship across the ocean
 -  Chapter 9:   The giant express steamers - The transatlantic crossing following 1900

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