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125 Years Ago: Hapag Opened its Emigrant Accommodations on the America Quay

Led by the hope of being able to escape poverty and persecution in their homelands and to begin a new life, several million people – especially from Eastern Europe – started off in Hamburg on their journey to the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. Even today, the history of emigration from the Port of Hamburg is particularly associated with one name: Albert Ballin. With him as its director-general, the shipping company founded in 1847 would rise to become the largest shipping line in the world.

In the 1890s, when the persecution of Jews in Russia reached its apex, more and more people streamed into Hamburg to transition from its port to the New World. Thanks to its farsighted investment policies, Hapag was prepared for the huge crowds of emigrants. At an early stage, the shipping company had started building expensive express steamers that could cross the ocean from Hamburg to New York in record time, and that had been making weekly crossings since the spring of 1891.

In fact, the real difficulties lay elsewhere: Prior to starting off on their voyage, the numerous emigrants had to be accommodated on shore – an enormous challenge for the city of Hamburg. In addition to public buildings and old lodging ships owned by Hapag, the emigrants could find temporary accommodations in private guest houses – but only at extremely high prices. In the end, the Senate of Hamburg commissioned Hapag to build mass accommodations on government-owned property.

Interior of an accommodation on the America Quai (photo taken from the book "Über Hamburg in die Welt" by Groppe and Wöst)

July 20 2017 marked the 125th anniversary of Hapag’s opening of these new emigrant accommodations on the America Quay (Amerikakai) in 1892. Made up of eight long buildings with dormitories holding 140 beds each, they offered enough room to lodge 1,400 men, women and children. After an exhausting journey by train that could last up to 90 hours, the Russian emigrants were brought directly to the barracks by the quay railway line. This prevented the Eastern European emigrants from coming into direct contact with the residents of Hamburg.

The reasons for interning the emigrants were fears in the city that epidemics might be brought in from Eastern Europe and then spread within the populace. While being lodged on the America Quay, those staying in the accommodations also had to undergo medical examinations. The fact is that emigrants who completed their long journey across the ocean did so in vain if they had infectious diseases. The inspection station on Ellis Island off New York forced infected immigrants to return to Europe – at the expanse of the shipping line on whose steamers they had arrived.

In 1898, the emigrant barracks on the America Quay had to give way to the construction of a large storage shed as part of an expansion of the port. A suitable replacement site was found on the Elbe River island of Veddel on the southern border of the city. Here, Hapag had a complex with so-called emigrant halls built that was unparalleled for its time. Opened in 1901, the vast complex resembled a small city, offering Jewish and other emigrants much more comfort than the comparatively spartan accommodations on the America Quay. Until 1914, more than 1.4 million people were lodged in the emigrant halls on Veddel, waiting for their voyage into a new life to begin. 

Courtyard of the emigrant accommodations at the America Quai, built in 1892.

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