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Passenger Ships - 19th Century

By 1840 there were several lines of sailing vessels in operation between America and Europe, and the ships were provided with accommoda- tions for the three classes into which travellers have been divided from early times. It is impossible at this day to determine with exactness the volume of passenger traffic in clippers, for no complete records were kept; but that it was comparatively light may be inferred from the fact that provision was made in the large ships for ten first-cabin and twenty second-cabin passengers. The steerage capacity varied from eight hundred to one thousand, and it was a long time after steam-ship lines had been established before immigrants ceased to come over in clippers. In fact for ten years after the inauguration of the first steam line in 1840 the immigrants had no choice the steam - ships carrying none but cabin passengers.

The appointments of cabins and state-rooms were meagre as compared with the great steam-ships of later days, but the table fare was substantially the same. The first-cabin passengers fared as they might in a good hotel; those in the second cabin, or intermediates, as they were called, had a plentiful supply of plain, well-prepared food, and the needs of the steerage passengers were looked after by the British Government, which instituted an official bill of fare.

Several attempts were made to establish regular lines, that is, a service with stated times of sailing from one years end to another; but none of these succeeded until 1840, when the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company was organized. The chief promoter of this concern was Mr. Samuel Cunard, of Halifax, and the name of the corporation was speedily forgotten in the popular adoption of his name. The first fleet of the Cunard Line consisted of four vessels: the Britannia, Acadia, Caledonia, and Columbia.

The Britannia carried ninety cabin passengers on her first trip, departing on 04 July 1840, and making the voyage to Boston, including a detour to Halifax and delay there of twelve hours, in fourteen days and eight hours. Although the passengers had the run of the entire ship, their accommodations were little, if any, better than those provided in the clippers. The saloon and state-rooms were all in the extreme after-part of the vessel, and there were no such things as comfortable smoking-rooms on deck, libraries, sitting-rooms, electric lights and annunciators, automatic windows to port-holes. And there were no baths to be obtained except through the kind offices of the boatswain or his mate, who vigorously applied the hose on such passengers as came dressed for the occasion when the decks were being washed in the early morning. State-room was much more of a misnomer then than it later became.

The pioneer steam-ship had chambers so narrow that there was just room enough for a stool to stand between the edge of the two-feet-wide berth and the wallmere closets. There were two berths in each room, one above the other. By paying somewhat less than double fare a passenger given to luxury might have a room to himself, according to the advertisement of the Great Western. Within such narrow quarters, however, everything possible was done for the passengers comfort. The difference between the earliest days of the Cunard Line and that of 1900 was by no means as great as might be expected. The table was as good in 1840 as it was in 1900, and the officers and stewards were just as attentive. There was more costly ornamentation in 1900; but that aside, the two great improvements over the liners of 1840 were in speed and space.

Mr. Cunard was correct in believing that transportation by steam would stimulate travel between the continents. For several years the Cunard Line enjoyed what was substantially a monopoly of the steam carrying trade between England and America, although individual vessels made trips back and forth at irregular intervals, and various and unsuccessful attempts were made to establish a regular service. The first enterprise of this kind that originated in the United States was the Ocean Steam Navigation Company. In 1847 this corporation undertook to carry the American mails between New York and Bremen twice a month.

The most important American rival which foreign corporations encountered in transatlantic steam navigation was the Collins Line. Mr. E. K. Collins began to interest New York merchants in a plan to establish a new steam-ship line in 1847. Two years later the company he organized launched four vessels: the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, and Baltic. The Government paid the company $858,000 yearly for carrying the mails, under the condition that the vessels make twenty-six voyages every year, and that the passage from port to port should be better in point of time than that made by the Cunarders. The Collins Line met the conditions successfully; its vessels making westward trips that averaged eleven days, ten horns, and twenty-one minutes, as compared with twelve days, nineteen hours, and twenty-six minutes by the British steam-ships. Many features that have since come to be regarded as indispensable on board ship were introduced by the Collins vessels. Among them none attracted more comment when the Atlantic arrived at Liverpool, at the end of her first voyage, May 10, 1849, than the barber-shop. To all intents and purposes the corporation was bankrupt at the end of six years. It cost too much to maintain the high rate of speed required by the Government.

During the Crimean War the transatlantic trade received a severe check, as more than half the steam-ships were withdrawn and placed in the service of the British and the French Governments as transports; during that time the Collins Line and other American lines received quite an impetus by many of the vessels of both the Cunard and Inman Lines being required for transport duty. At the close of the Crimean War, however, a reaction set in when these ships were again put in commission, with a decidedly disastrous effect on the American lines.

In 1855 Commodore Vanderbilt endeavored to get a subsidy from the American Government for a mail line to Europe, but, notwithstanding his failure to procure this contract, he placed three or four vessels on the route between New York, Southampton, and Havre, and later on the Bremen route. The venture was more or less profitable. The last remnants of American enterprise in Atlantic passenger traffic disappeared with the steam-ships Fulton and Arago of the New York and Havre Line, which were withdrawn in 1868.

Two innovations introduced by the Inman Line became prominent features of ocean business, and it may be left an open question as to which was the more important. One was the use of the screw-propeller, and the other was the carrying of steerage, or third-class, passengers.

Previous to 1850 all steamships built for transatlantic voyages had been side-wheelers, and even as late as 1870 there were steam-vessels that came into the port of New York with the walking-beam, familiar to patrons of ferry-boats and river steamers. The principle of the screw-propeller had been known and utilized for many years; but it was not believed that a steamship could cross the ocean in safety unless side-paddles were employed. The first iron transatlantic screw steam-ship was the City of Glasgow, built on the Clyde by Tod & McGregor. She made four successful voyages between Glasgow and New York before she was purchased by the corporation that afterward became known as the Inman Line. This innovation, although it did not result at first in any marked increase of speed, soon found approbation in the policies of rival companies for reasons of economy and space. The introduction of the screw-propeller added to the discomforts of the cabin passengers; for in the first vessels of the Inman Line the state-rooms and saloons were retained in the after part of the ships, where the motion of the sea and the noise of the screw were most apparent. This location had made sense for the earlier paddle-wheel vessels, where the propulsive noise was amid-ships, but not with a ship were the screws were to stern.

The other innovation was equally long in finding acceptance among oceanic steam-ship companies, but it eventually prevailed, even to the extermination of the clipper ship as a passenger carrier. The steady increase in passenger traffic between the two continents led to the organization of many other companies that tried to find a share in the carrying business. During the period from 1850 to 1860 many Atlantic lines were established. The new-comers during that decade, as well as in the following decade, adopted generally the innovations ventured by the Inman Line. But it was not until after 1870 that the sidewheeler disappeared from the ocean, and it was not until 1874 that clipper ships ceased to bring immigrants.

Although the transatlantic lines multiplied rapidly, and the business induced by foreign traffic increased steadily, there was no other marked improvement in the service until 1870, when the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company entered upon its career. In this case also the legal title of the corporation was soon forgotten in the popular adoption of a short name to designate the line; and this new enterprise has been known almost from the beginning as the White Star Line. Their first steamship was the Oceanic, and its model and appointments throughout became the pioneer for later liners. They heeded the complaints of the travellers who suffered from the noise and motion in their state-rooms in the after part of the boat. In the old style of steam-ships the passenger who desired to sleep had to contend against the noise of the screw, the creaking of the steering apparatus, and the most extreme motion possible upon the vesseL The White Star Line arranged its saloons and state-rooms so as to bring them as near as possible to the centre of gravity; placing them, therefore, amidships. The year 1870, therefore, marked an epoch in steam navigation, and every vessel, or nearly so, built since that date conformed to the model set by the Oceanic.

Prior to the Oceanic ships were built on the lines of sailing vessels, and a poop extended with scarcely a break from the focsle to the quarter-deck. When a sea came on board it was held as in a sluice between the high bulwarks and the poop, swashing fore and aft with the pitch of the ship, until it drained off through the scuppers. Most of the state-rooms were then situated below the main deck, and after such a sea they were likely to be flooded -- it was a frequent occurrence to find cabins inundated. This was the least mischief it did, and when several seas were shipped in rapid succession, the vessel was in danger of foundering. Subsequently, steamers were much better protected from incoming seas, and the main deck was completely covered in. Instead of the bulwarks there was a simple rail and netting, and any water shipped flowed overboard as quickly as it came on board.

The relative accessibility of the markets of Asia from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe and from the Pacific coast of the United States depended as much on facilities of transportation as on distance. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 permitted economical communication by steamships for Europe. The employment of steel in the construction of the hulls of merchant steamships, begun in 1879, opened to the United States the trans-Pacific trade. Steamships from the American Pacific coast had to carry coal for the entire voyage across the Pacific, with a corresponding increase in expense and reduction in the space which can be devoted to earning freight money, while the Suez route offered several opportunities for re-coaling, and in consequence permited the employment of more space for revenue-earning cargo. The use of steel in the construction of hulls made it possible to build steamships so large that they could carry the 3,000 tons of coal, or thereabouts, necessary to traverse at full speed the 6,000 miles which separates the American Pacific coasts from China. By the 1890s the appearance of large steel steamships in the trade directly across the Pacific revolutionized the relations of the commercial, manufacturing and agricultural world to Asia.

From 1838, when the Sirius crossed the ocean, till 1879, one hundred and forty-four steamers, counting all classes, were lost in the transatlantic trade. Of the one hundred and forty-four vessels lost up to 1879, more than one-half were wrecked. Twenty-four never reached the ports for which they sailed, their fate stillbeing unknown; ten were burned at sea; eight were sunk in collisions, and three were sunk by ice. In the records of the Hydrographic Office it appeared that, from 1882 to 1890, thirty-six steamers were more or less injured by ice in the North Atlantic, though some of these were freighting and coastwise vessels. The commonest explanation offered of the fate of the missing ships is collision with ice in fog or in the darkness of night.

From year to year the speed was improved, until so many steam-ships were classed as racers that the rivalry came to be centerd in appointments and luxurious accommodation. By the end of the 19th Century, on the most unpretentious steamship, there was room enough in the chambers to put a small trunk, and even other articles of convenience to the traveller and one may dress, if he takes reason able care, without knocking his knuckles and elbows against the wall or the edges of his berth. Nowadays, too, the stateroom is usually large enough to accommodate three or four persons, while some are arranged to hold six and even eight persons.

The inauguration of the Oceanic Company marked the beginning of what maybe called the second epoch intransatlantic travel, and with the first voyage of the City of New York a third epoch was begun. This period was distinguished by the twin-screw steam-ship. She was the first ship (except Great Eastern) to exceed 10,000 tons. These new vessels were not remarkably superior to the best single-screw steam-ships in the matter of speed, and any advantage gained in this respect may be attributed to their having greater horse-power. The great merit of the twin-screw ship lies in the increased safety which its mechanism insures. It admits of avoiding obstacles that would surely wreck a single-screw vessel, of better handling in case of collision, and of surer progress in the event of the breaking of a shaft.

Such steamers as the City of New York and the City of Paris were designed so as to carry about five hundred first-cabin passengers each, but they carry less steerage passengers than other ships, which added greatly to the comfort of saloon passengers. They were subdivided into twenty-four water-tight compartments, and this, with due allowance for the architects notions, led to the supplying of bath-rooms about the ship, according to the number of passengers carried; several suites of rooms on the upper deck were arranged with bath-rooms and toilet-rooms. To each class of passengers was furnished its own bath-rooms, smoking-room, saloon, and dining-room. The steerage was so divided that the third-class passengers are not only away forward, but aft also; and they had the whole of one deck to themselves for promenading and getting glimpses of ocean views.

By 1891 the fastest westward trip on record was that of the City of Paris, her time of 5 days, 19 hours, and 18 minutes being undisputed. Her best eastward trip was made in 5 days, 22 hours, and 50 minutes, which was also the fastest trip on record to the eastward. The City of New York had made the westward voyage in 5 days, 21 hours, and 19 minutes; she made the eastward voyage in 5 days, 23 hours, and 14 minutes. In that year there were twelve steam-ship lines whic had regular sailing days each week, and some had saiings twice and three times a week; they all terminated or began in New York, and on these lines there were eighty-four steamships which carried saloon and steerage passengers.

For many years past it had been the custom to divide all steamers by transverse bulkheads into so - called water-tight compartments, the purpose of which was to increase their buoyancy and stability in case of collision. The Oregon was divided into ten compartments, but she sank in a few hours after her collision with a coal schooner off Fire Island light. The compartments have invariably proved useless when the ship has been struck amidships with sufficient force to open her engine and boilers to the sea, though when the weather has been calm and the injury forward or astern, they have kept her afloat. The insufficiency of their number in proportion to the size of the ships was not their only defect, moreover. In order to give an unobstructed passage along the decks it was the custom to cut doors in the bulkheads, and it frequently happened that in the confusion following a collision these had been left open, allowing the sea to rush from compartment to compartment, either because they were forgotten or because they refused to work.

The greatest improvement in the direction of safety was the system of bulkheads and double bottoms introduced by the builders of the City of New York and the City of Paris. In the City of Paris and the City of New York, there were no fewer than twenty water-tight compartments separated by solid transverse bulkheads, which rose from the keel to the saloon deck, eighteen feet above the water-line, and which had no doors or openings of any kind whatever.

For many years past the value of the twin screw has been debated by the builders, the managers, the captains, and the engineers of the great transatlantic lines, to whom it did not commend itself so readily as to the Admiralty. It was adopted for war-ships several years before any of the wellknown passenger lines ventured to use it, and its first appearance in this service was in the City of New York. The propellers are worked by two complete and entirely independent sets of boilers and engines, and these were separated by a longitudinal bulkhead in addition to the transverse bulkheads. In a single-screw ship this longitudinal bulkhead is impossible, and the space in which her engine and boilers are situated is her most vulnerable point; if she is struck there with sufficient force to make a fissure large enough to admit any considerable quantity of water, nothing will save her from sinking.

The City of New York and the City of Paris were also provided with double bottoms, so that, should the outer skin be torn, the inner one would still exclude the sea; and the efficacy of oil in calming the troubled waters has been so well established that apparatus for its distribution is placed in the bows.

By around 1890 steel had been almost entirely substituted for iron, it being lighter and more durable. Vessels were lighted by electricity in every quarter, including even the steerage; there was ample room for exercises and games on deck; there were well-stocked libraries and music-rooms, no well-ordered ship being without a piano or organ, and some had both; smoking-rooms were usually on the upper deck; electric annunciators were handy; bath-rooms were numerous; the thrashing of the screw was heard faintly at the worst; there was plenty and a variety of food; and in short, the majority of cabin passengers fared for a week better, and were surrounded by more appointments of wealth and luxury than they were accustomed to in their own homes.

The ships that were regarded as leviathans in 1875 were as yachts compared with more recent additions to the various fleets. Scarcely more than ten years had elapsed since sixteen knots was the maximum speed; by 1890 it was twenty knots, with the certainty of an almost immediate increase to twenty-one or twenty-two knots. The tonnage had increased within the same period from a maximum of five thousand to ten thousand five hundred, and while in 1880 two hundred cabin passengers were as many as any steamer could accommodate with a reasonable degree of comfort on one voyage, by 1890 it was not uncommon to find over five hundred as the complement of one steamer. When steamers of sixteen and seventeen knots were built, it was said that they were too large and too fast, and that they would surely come to grief, but experience has proved them to be as safe as any.

In 1850 a 1,400-ton sailing vessel was considered a big ship, but by 1890 some of the new British four-masted steel ships sailing between Europe and America carry from 5,000 to 6,000 tons of cargo. Great as had been the changes in ocean transportation, still greater changes were pending. The transatlantic business showed the most marked changes. From the old time packetship to the early type of steamship was but the first step. Faster vessels were built, and the space devoted to cargo was encroached upon by enormous engines and boilers, by big coal bunkers, and by large saloons and an increased number of staterooms. The hulls changed from the bulging sides of the first types to the narrow, racing pattern of the 1890s. Speed and the arrangements for the comfort of a large list of passengers robbed the vessels of their freight capacity, and the freight of an ocean greyhound was a secondary consideration.

This necessitated the creation of a distinct class, known as the freighter. The first railway cars having compartments for passengers, baggage, and freight were changed to express trains where speed and comfort are the first considerations, and freight trains, where carrying capacity is the main object. In just the same manner, and for the same reasons, by 1890 the ocean traffic underwent the same changes. By 1891 there were twenty-nine regular lines of steamships running between New York and European ports. Of these, eight lines ran express steamships, and twenty-three lines carry passengers and freight. The other six lines transported freight only.

Next to the ocean greyhound came a class of steamships requiring from 7 to 8 days to cross the Atlantic, and having accommodation for from 800 to 1,000 passengers of all classes, and from 2,000 to 5,000 tons of freight. Both passenger and freight rates were slightly less than on the greyhounds, a preference being given to the latter, at certain times, according to the condition of the market. The slower ships were patronized by people to whom the saving of a few dollars is an object, and by some who enjoyed the ocean trip too much to be in a hurry about landing, and by others who imagined all sorts of dreadful things were going to happen to the racers. The class of freight carried varied but little from the faster ships, except that the mails, specie, and express goods were usually lacking. Cotton, tobacco, and merchandise, including manufactured goods and machinery, form the bulk of the general cargo.

The 19th-century steamships were "warriors for the working day," carrying hundreds of thousands of people across the Atlantic, ranging from the privileged travelers in the rarefied realm of first class to the huddled masses of immigrants in steerage.Between the years 1607 and 1920, it is estimated that over thirty million immigrants came to these shores; during the past two centuries over half of them arrived through the port of New York. First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons.

This scenario was far different for "steerage" or third class passengers. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, oftenspending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection. If the immigrant's papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island.

The first steamboat on the Great Lakes was the passenger carrying Walk-In-The-Water built in 1818 to navigate Lake Erie. She was a success and more vessels like her followed. Steamboats on the lakes soon grew in size as well as in numbers, and additional decks were built on the superstructure to allow more capacity. This inexpensive method of adding capacity, adapted from river steamboats and applied to lake craft, was at first decried by deepwater men as unsafe but later proved worthwhile and was ultimately applied to ocean liners.

The screw propeller was introduced to the Great Lakes by Vandalia in 1842 and allowed the building of a new class of combination passenger and freight carrier. The first of these "package and passenger freighters," Hercules, was built in Buffalo in 1843. Hercules displayed all the features that defined the type, a screw propelled the vessel, passengers were accomodated in staterooms on the upper deck, and package freight below on the large main deck and in the holds.

Engines developed as well. Compound engines, in which steam was expanded twice for greater efficiency, were first used on the Great Lakes in 1869. Triple-expansion engines, for even greater efficiency, were introduced in 1887 and quadruple-expansion engines, the ultimate type of reciprocating engine for speed, power and efficiency, appeared on the lakes in 1894.

Steamboat lines were established by railroads on the Great lakes to join railheads in the 1850s. This service carried goods and passengers from railroads in the East across the length of the lakes to railroads for the journey West. Railroads bought and built steamship lines to compliment railroad services. One such railroad-owned steamship line was formed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1865 to connect their terminals at Buffalo, New York, to those of the Great Northern Railroad at Duluth, Minnesota. This new line, owned by the Erie and Western Transportation Co., became the well known "Anchor Line."

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:50:59 ZULU