White Star Line Steamships: The Changing Face of Early 20th Century Immigration

When someone speaks about immigration, like many others I picture the crowded steerage of the Titanic movie. Indeed many of the ships that carried 19th century third-class immigrants were crowded, dirty and disease-ridden–the horrors we think about were real. RMS Baltic postcard at Cow HampshireBut after the depression of the 1890′s, immigration was at a low point compared with previous years. Some of the decrease in immigration can also be contributed to stricter immigration laws including banning “mental defectives,” paupers, convicts and prostitutes (law in 1875), polygamists, and diseased or sick immigrants.

By 1900 there was a major shift in the originating countries of RMS Baltic postcard 2immigrants, away from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Netherlands and Scandinavia to southern and eastern European countries (i.e. Russia, Poland, Romania, the Balkans, Italy, and Greece). At the same time both the White Star Line and Cunard had begun to build bigger and faster ships. They held more passengers and freight, but also were more expensive to run. White Star line was making an impressive effort to woo the second and third class passengers.

One such ocean liner was the RMS Baltic. It was launched in late 1903 at Belfast, Ireland, the largest vessel of its kind at that time. I have posted below an article from National Magazine in April of 1904. The story describes in detail the benefits offered to third class passengers, i.e. “Conspicuous in the arrangements for the 3,000 third-class passengers which the

RMS Baltic launching 1903

Launching of RMS Baltic in 1903, from National Magazine, The Chapple Publishing Co., Boston, April 1904, page 72

Baltic will carry is the large number of two, three and four-berth staterooms where people who pay the minimum fare may yet have all the privacy and comfort which is vouchsafed the millionaire.” This evokes an entirely different picture in my mind, than the one of the ill-fated Titanic steerage victims. I have some rare stereographic views of passengers on the RMS Baltic that I have included in this story.

This ship, the RMS Baltic, had two well-known connections to the later-built, ill-fated Titanic. The RMS Baltic sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage to New York on 29 June 1904 with Captain Edward Smith in command. The first connection is that this captain was the very same Captain Edward Smith who commanded the RMS Titantic on its maiden voyage, and sank on 15 April 1912 after it collided with an iceberg.

And the second connection–The RMS Baltic also sent an ice warning message to the RMS

RMS Baltic stereo cow hampshire

Rare stereographic view of the deck of the RMS Baltic, during a 1904 voyage. Rare stereographic view photograph, property of Janice W. Brown

Titanic (on 14 April 1912): “Greek steamer Athenia reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today in latitude 41° 51′ N, longitude 49° 52′ W. Wish you and Titanic all success. Commander.”

The RMS Baltic’s port of departure and entry were limited, due to the great size of the ship. The story, “The Mightiest Ship” below details below these port concerns.  New England’s main port for immigration was Boston, with Portsmouth, being New Hampshire’s only ‘immigration port.’ ‘[see New Hampshire Emigration and Immigration]

The Mightiest Steamship Yet, by Winthrop Packard
“Nothing in the latter day developments of the world’s stupendous commerce is more impressive than the extraordinary growth of big ships. Every year sees a larger vessel

Seasick on deck of RMS Baltic, during 1904 voyage.  Rare stereograph view

Seasick on deck of RMS Baltic, during 1904 voyage. Rare stereograph view photograph, property of Janice W. Brown

launched, and with the launching comes the news of order placed with the ship-builders for still greater ships. The newest of these wonders is the Baltic, just launched from the yard of Harland & Wolf in Belfast, Ireland. The new ship is the largest and in many respects the finest vessel afloat, her great size making it possible to add improvements even beyond the other vessels of her type in which the shipbuilder’s art has already attained a high standard of excellence.”

“The dimension of the Baltic are as follows: Length, 725 feet; breadth, seventy-five feet;

depth, forty-nine feet. Her gross tonnage will be practically 24,000 tons, her capacity for cargo 80,000 tons and the displacement at her load draught about 40,000 tons. The accommodations for first-class passengers will be luxurious apartments for those who

wish to live on the ocean in the same state they enjoy on shore, and a mighty dining saloon which extends the full width of the ship and is fitted and decorated in the regal style of kings’ palaces. In this 370 people may dine at one time.”

“But the most significant feature of the new ship is the splendid accommodations provided for the third-class passengers, the emigrants. Nothing could show more clearly the value which the great steam-ship companies place upon the privilege of carrying the common people. In years gone by such passengers were huddled like sheep in pens and

RMS Baltic Passenger during 1904 voyage.  Rare stereograph view property of Janice W. Brown

RMS Baltic passengers on deck during 1904 voyage. From rare stereographic view photograph property of Janice W. Brown

given little consideration on the voyage. The newer ships cater distinctly to

their comfort and each new boat makes distinct advances in this direction. Conspicuous in the arrangements for the 3,000 third-class passengers which the Baltic will carry is the large number of two, three and four-berth staterooms where people who pay the minimum fare may yet have all the privacy and comfort which is vouchsafed the millionaire. The third-class dining rooms, too, will be commodious and comfortable, fitted with swing chairs, carefully laid tables and presided over by attentive waiters, not so magnificent perhaps, but just as comfortable as those of the first-class. The third-class folk will have their recreation hall with its piano, and spacious open and covered decks for promenading, exercise, and even sports. The heating and ventilation is as complete as modern science can make it, and just as carefully looked after in the quarters of the emigrants as in those of the wealthy.”

“The launching of the Baltic calls renewed attention to the query as to where the increase in size in trans-Atlantic steamships is to end. Only a few years ago the building of such great ships was deemed improbable, not only because of the structural difficulties but because it was thought they would not pay. The skill of the ship-builder has triumphed over the structural problem and actual business tests have shown such ships to be the best paying ones in certain lines of trade. So the increase goes steadily on and the end is not even in sight. Already the White Star line has two other ships nearly as large as this new one–the Cedric built a year ago and the Celtic built the year before that. Now an order has been placed for a ship on the same line as the Baltic and which will be seventy-five feet longer.

RMS Baltic on deck 1904

passenger on deck RMS Baltic 1904

[refers to the RMS Adriatic, built in 1907].”

“Only the world’s greatest harbors can take such vessels, and the answer to the foregoing query seems to lie in the limit of harbor capacity. The Baltic and the Cedric will ply between New York and Liverpool, where ther

e is depth of water sufficient to float either, yet the limit of depth is not far distant. These boats have a deep-load draught of thirty-five feet. That bars them, when loaded to their full capacity, from most of our Atlantic ports. Boston for instance has just got an appropriation from the national government for the deepening of her main ship channel to twenty=seven feet at low tide. This will not be accomplished for some time. New York['s ship channel is to be deepened to forty feet under the same conditions. This will permit the largest ships to enter at any stage of the tide for some time longer; but if ships of 35,000 tons are built--and already contracts for such have been let by the Cunard line backed by the British government--this will be none too deep. If ships are steadily to increase in size for the next twenty years as they have for the last twenty, the great ports of the world will have to be built about new and deeper harbors or else dredging must be

Passengers of RMS Baltic, on deck during 1904 voyage.  Rare stereographic view property of Janice W. Brown

Passengers of RMS Baltic, on deck during 1904 voyage. Rare stereographic view property of Janice W. Brown

done on a scale hitherto unequaled.”

“The problem before the ship-owner and ship-builder of today, then, seems not so much the ability to build much gre

ater ships than the world has yet seen, nor yet the ability to find business for them. Both these seem to have been satisfactorily settled. The riddle to be solved is how to find ports that will accommodate them, or make the present ports deep enough.”

“In any event, the launching of such a ship as the Baltic is a notable mark of the tendency of the times in ocean traffic. It shows that ships of an astonishing size are being built, not so much to accommodate the wealthy traveler as to provide a comfortable passage for the million.”  — National Magazine, The Chapple Publishing Co., Boston, April 1904, page 72

*ADDITIONAL READING*

ALookThruTime: RMS Baltic & RMS Titanic

Immigration in the 20th Century, Statistics

SS Baltic Voyages

White Star Liner Baltic Completes Maiden Voyage in 1904

1909 Brochure with Photographs (GG Archives)

VIDEO: RMS BALTIC (Youtube)

War Diary: with Pershing on the HMS Baltic (26 May 1917)

From the Old World to the New

EyeWitness to History.com: Immigration in the Early 1900s
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One Response to White Star Line Steamships: The Changing Face of Early 20th Century Immigration

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Janice. My husband’s grandfather immigrated from Northern Ireland aboard the Baltic in 1920. I’ve collected some information on the ship, but much of what you have here is new to me. You’ve done a wonderful job describing the ship and the immigrant experience. That’s fascinating that the Baltic sent a warning message about ice to the Titanic!

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