Identification: Transatlantic passenger shipping company
Date: Established in 1847
Location: Based in Hamburg, Germany
Also known as: Hamburg Amerikanische Packetfahrt Actien Gesellschaft (HAPAG); Hamburg-Amerika Linie; Hamburg-America Line, Hamburg-American Line
Significance: From 1881 until 1914, the Hamburg-Amerika Line was the largest shipping line in existence. It transported hundreds of thousands of emigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe to the United States, Canada, Latin America, and other destinations around the world.
The German city of Hamburg lies on the Elbe River, a navigable waterway that empties into the North Sea. Also accessible by railroad from the east and south, Hamburg became the most important emigration port in continental Europe during the last decades of the nineteenth century, outstripping its rival German port, Bremen, during the 1890’s. Hamburg became the point of embarkation not only for German and Scandinavian emigrants, but also for Russian and Polish Jews, many of whom were fleeing persecutions that had started in czarist Russia in 1881.
By 1914, when World War I interrupted shipping, the Hamburg-Amerika Line had a fleet of 175 active steamships, several of which could carry one thousand passengers each. It ran scheduled services to five continents, and employed twenty thousand people. Its steamships crossed the North Atlantic in a little over one week. Most immigrants to the United States traveled by the lowest-cost class, which was known as “steerage.” Such passengers were accommodated between decks in closely packed bunks. However, despite their crowding, they were relatively comfortable, and the shipping line provided them with three meals a day. The cost of a typical adult steerage ticket was equivalent to about twenty U.S. dollars—a price that decreased slightly as the demand rose. Children’s fares were the adult fares. Ships arriving in New York docked at company piers in Hoboken, New Jersey, from which passengers were ferried to the immigrant processing stations—Castle Garden between 1855 and 1891 and Ellis Island afterward.
Under the directorship of Albert Ballin, the son of a German-Jewish mercantile family, the shipping company expanded its reach into eastern Europe during the 1890’s, sending agents to recruit passengers, sell them rail and steamship tickets, and connect them with temporary lodging at the embarkation port. Ballin’s agents set up health inspection checkpoints at the frontiers of the German state and arranged “disinfection” routines for emigrants prior to their eventual embarkation. This latter procedure was done because passengers found to be carrying contagious diseases could be turned back at U.S. ports of immigration, leaving the shipping company to pay for return to Europe.
German emigrants boarding a ship at the port of Hamburg. (NARA)
As the flow of emigrants needing accommodation began to overwhelm the capacity of Hamburg’s hotels and hostels, Ballin arranged for the construction of an emigrant village, the Auswandererhallen (emigrant halls), to be built on Veddel Island in the Elbe, on the outskirts of Hamburg. Able to accommodate as many as five thousand people at one time, the village provided dormitories, kosher and nonkosher dining halls, shops, a bandstand, and houses of worship, including a synagogue. It also had facilities for quarantine and further health inspections. When sailing day arrived, the passengers loaded their belongings onto tenders, which transported them down the Elbe to Cuxhaven, the city’s deep-water outport, where giant transatlantic ships awaited their boarding.
Between 1850 and 1938, approximately 5 million people emigrated from Europe aboard Hamburg- Amerika Line ships. During World War II, Germany’s Nazi government expunged Albert Ballin’s name and contributions from the historical record. The emigrant village he had built was demolished in 1962. During the 1970’s, the Hamburg-Amerika Line merged with the Norddeutscher Lloyd of Bremen to establish the modern Hapag-Lloyd shipping company. Hapag’s detailed passenger records, covering the period 1850-1934, have survived and are housed in the Hamburg State Archive, and Ballin’s reputation has been restored. Twenty-first century American tourists may visit BallinStadt, a re-creation of the Auswanderer village on Veddel Island and a center for family history research.
Karen Manners Smith
See also: Austrian immigrants; Ellis Island; European immigrants; Germanimmigrants; Hungarian immigrants; Infectious diseases; Jewish immigrants; Pacific Mail Steamship Company; Polish immigrants; Russian and Soviet immigrants; Transportation of immigrants; World War I.