Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

Contact Us

Contact the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives

Atlanta, Georgia USA

Take A Poll

The Ocean Steamer - Crossing the Atlantic in Early Steamships - 1870

"The Ocean Steamer." an Article from Harper's New Monthly Magazine. "One of the most striking objects of interest to a stranger visiting New York is the ocean steamer. There are thirty or forty of these huge structures, embodying the highest results of naval science and skill yet realized by mankind..."

The Embarkation

Illustration 1: The Embarkation

One of the most striking objects of interest to a stranger visiting New York is the ocean steamer. There are thirty or forty of these huge structures, embodying the highest results of naval science and skill yet realized by mankind, that pertain to the port of New York, and connect it directly or indirectly with every important commercial point on the globe.

There are lines running to several different ports in England and Scotland—to Germany—to France—to the Isthmus of Darien, where they connect, through the Isthmus, with other lines from Panama to all points on the western coasts of North and South America—to the West Indies, and to Brazil. Sometimes eight or ten of these steamers leave the port on the same day.

There are more than a hundred of such vessels, of the first-class, belonging to the different lines ; and when we consider that to bring the cost of a trip out and home—which cost consists only of the coal, the service, and some incidental charges — within twenty-five thousand dollars is considered a proof of good management and economy, we can see that the amount of capital employed, and the extent of the interests involved in this business, are almost incalculable.

The sources of profit for a line of European steamers are three—regular passengers, freights, and emigrants. Different lines depend, in different proportions, on these several elements. Perhaps the line in which the three are most equally and fully represented is that of Williams and Guion.

Their line is composed of eight first-class iron steamers, of three thousand tons each, and are celebrated for their sea-going qualities. They carry the United States mails, and are commanded by gentlemen of large experience in ocean steam navigation. It was the Minnesota, one of the ships of this line, which, through the courtesy of Captain Price, her commander, furnished the subjects for the engravings with which this article is illustrated.

One might easily suppose that since the crossing of the Atlantic is the great lion in the way, in the imaginations of so many people, when contemplating a tour in Europe, that the arrangements for the conveyance of travelers and tourists would be made with a view of effecting the passage of the sea at the narrowest part.

But this is not so. We go by water for six hundred miles very nearly along the shore—with railroad trains running parallel to our course, not very far distant, and far outstripping the steamer in speed—and do not finally leave the coast till about one- fifth of the distance has been traversed by sea, which might, were it not for certain peculiar considerations of a practical character, have been more rapidly passed over by land.

Many persons are surprised when they learn for the first time how closely a direct line from New York to Liverpool follows the coast until it reaches the point, beyond Newfoundland, where the coast trends to the westward. We are deceived by our maps, which, representing the eastern and western hemispheres on two separate projections, and on opposite pages in the atlas, make it seem as if a direct course to Liverpool would require us to strike out at once, on leaving New York, into the open sea, leaving Halifax and the coasts of Newfoundland far to the westward of us.

But the truth is, as will be readily made apparent on connecting New York and Liverpool by means of a thread upon the globe, that a direct line from one of these ports to the other, instead of receding at once widely from the land, passes closely along the coast, cutting off" several peninsulas and capes on its way, and at Newfoundland passing through the very heart of the country.

So that if in planning a route to Europe for the people of the United States the only things to be taken into consideration were the relative proportions of land and water transportation to be provided for, and the desirableness of making the water passage as short as possible, the plan would have been to go by railroad to some point on the northeastern coast of Newfoundland and there take the steamer for a voyage of something like two thousand miles, instead of one of three thousand miles from New York.

The Main Saloon

Illustration 2: The Main Saloon

As it is, however, the people of Massachusetts, of Maine, and even of the British provinces, come hundreds of miles by land in a course directly the reverse of that leading to their intended destination, in order to go back again by sea ; when all the time they like the cars infinitely better than the ship, as a means of transportation.

The case is a remarkable example of the overpowering influence of commerce to draw into its channels, we might almost say into its vortex, every thing that comes within its reach or under its influence. At the mouth of the Hudson, and at the confluence of the East River flowing into it from the Sound, are formed vast basins of deep water, well sheltered, where ships of any magnitude, and in any number, may lie anchored in safety.

The Hudson River itself forms naturally a straight, deep, and uninterrupted channel of navigation for a hundred and fifty miles into the interior. From the head of this navigation a series of comparatively level plains —composing the region traversed by the Erie Canal—open an easy way into the heart of the continent, to the territory of the lakes and the valley of the Mississippi, and form the only natural opening through the range of highlands which every where else separates the interior from the sea.

New York is thus made, by the very configuration of the continent, the great way of entrance and exit for the channels and vehicles of commerce between the Old World and the New. These channels and vehicles have been formed, or, rather, they have opened and formed themselves, under the silent but irresistible influence of the natural conditions which control them.

They thrive and prosper spontaneously—every thing being in their favor —while attempts and enterprises aiming at the establishment of similar instrumentalities from other points drag heavily or die. Thus the commerce of North America flows through New York ; and since—as has always been the case in every country and in every age—the routes of travel must be mainly those of commerce, the result is that, as a general rule, the traveler who wishes to proceed from almost any point on the North American continent to any other part of the world, in order to go conveniently and comfortably, must go through the New York door.

The scene which presents itself on board a sea-going steamer, in the port of New York, an hour before its departure, is a very interesting one to those who behold it for the first time. Indeed it is invested with a certain romantic charm, which is heightened by there being combined with it in some degree an element of solemnity.

One might at first suppose that the spectacle would be very much the same as that afforded by the departure of a river steamer on the Mississippi or the Hudson, or that of a coastwise side-wheel packet leaving Portland for Boston, or Charleston for Savannah. But though there is a certain degree of correspondence in the elements which enter into combination in the two cases, the character of them, and the consequent expression of the whole scene, are entirely changed.

The massiveness and solidity of the structure of the ship ; the height, thickness, and strength of the bulwarks ; the guards placed around the hatchways and companion-ways, speaking ominously of heavy seas breaking over upon the decks ; the ponderous forms and prodigious strength of such of the machinery as comes in sight ; the capstan, with the heavy wheels and pinions connecting it with the steam-power by which it is worked ; the immense blocks and tackles appended to :he rigging ; and even the vast efficiency and force with which the passengers' baggage—a dozen heavy trunks in one slip-noose—are run up by machinery into the air, and then lowered rapidly into the hold—all combine to impress the observer with the conviction that something is in contemplation very different from a moonlight run around Point Judith or the traversing the Tappan Sea.

The rough dress and :he foreign air of the seamen, and a certain expression of serious earnestness with which they go about their duties, attract strongly the attention of the novice ; while the captain, as he tomes at last on board, wearing his naval uniform, and his other emblems of authority, and accompanied by his friends and attendants, inspires something like a feeling of awe.

The great saloon, which serves the purpose )f parlor, study, dining-room, drawing-room, and even to some extent of invalid-chamber, ill in one, for the whole company of passengers during the voyage, suggests, even before he ship leaves the dock, an idea of the heterogeneousness of the purposes to which it is to be, appropriated. Near the entrance a group of young men, with the air of men of business, are taking leave of one of their friends, a passenger, over a bottle of Champagne.

The Engineer at his Post

Illustration 3: The Engineer at his Post

Farther in is sometimes to be seen a pale and emaciated lady, out of health, who has perhaps just been brought on board by her husband, and is resting on one of the cushioned settees, supported by pillows and attended by her maid ; while she looks around upon the novel scene before her with an expression of countenance in which curiosity and languor, apprehension and hope, are strangely mingled. Other gentlemen and ladies are choosing places at the table, and pinning their cards upon them to mark them as "reserved seats."

Here and there a young man making his first voyage is seated at a table, with a portable writing apparatus unfolded before him, and is busily engaged in writing his last farewell to the family circle, or perhaps to some nearer and dearer object of affection. In some still more retired part of the cabin may sometimes be seen an invalid gentleman, who is leaving family and friends on the usually forlorn hope of recovering his failing health by a European tour.

His wife comes with him, perhaps, to take leave of him on board, being forbidden by domestic and maternal exigencies from accompanying him on his voyage. You see her struggling bravely to swallow her tears, and to let her husband carry away the impression of a smile upon her face, as his last recollection of it—if it should unhappily prove to be the last.

As the hour for the departure draws near the crowd increases on the decks and in the cabins until, at length, it becomes difficult to make one's way through the throng. Then comes the sound of the great bell, with the call of the steward, " All ashore !" This brings on the leave-takings--some given in jokes and laughter, and some in silence and tears.

When the visitors have withdrawn, and the ponderous bridge connecting the steamer with the pier has been hauled back upon the dock, the officer in command, from his elevated station on the deck, gives, by a touch of his little bell, a signal to the engineer at his station in the engine-room below.

The engine awakes at once to life and action, the water at the stern begins to be thrown into a whirlpool of boiling surges, and the vast mass, with its hundreds of occupants, gathered from all parts of the country and brought suddenly into the most close juxtaposition and companionship, begins slowly to creep away from the pier. The parting gun is fired ; the waving handkerchiefs from the long line of passengers leaning over the railing of the promenade deck are answered by similar signals from rows and groups of friends on the pier.

The ship glides on with a slow but gradually accelerated motion—the very slowness with which the ponderous mass obeys the impulse urging it forward impressing us the more forcibly with a sense of the prodigious momentum of its advance. When, at length, she attains her proper speed, and the spires of the city, the piers, and the vast numbers of ships and steamers that line the shore, or lie at anchor in the stream, show, by the swiftness with which they seem to glide by, that the ship is really under way, the passengers begin to turn their thoughts to themselves and to the ship, with a feeling of relief that the parting scene is over.

The groups separate, and the several parties move away to different portions of the ship, wherever their several inclinations or duties call them. Some find comfortable seats on the promenade deck to view the scenery of the harbor, and indulge quietly in the sad and solemn feelings awakened by the first parting from one"s native land.

Others go to attend to the proper disposition of their trunks and parcels—selecting such as they wish to have conveyed to their state-rooms for use during the voyage ; while others repair to their staterooms, and begin systematically to arrange their affairs, with a view to preparing themselves to meet their coming encounter with the sea in a horizontal position, which is for most persons the best posture of defense against that particular enemy.

There is a certain sense of solemnity, heightened by an element of vague and undefined fear, that is perhaps inseparable from that emotion which is always awakened in the' mind on first leaving one's native land for a voyage across the Atlantic. And yet, such a voyage is, on the whole, a means of protection and safety for life and health, and not a source of danger.

Taking the Pilot

Illustration 4: Taking the Pilot

Out of a hundred persons taken at random, if fifty were to remain at home and the other fifty cross the Atlantic occasionally, on voyages to Europe, the fifty travelers, all other things being equal, would, upon an average, live the longest.

So true is this that insurers, who have a direct pecuniary interest in the prolongation of the lives of their clients, far from requiring an extra premium on account of any additional risk incurred in such voyages, would rather that the insured would cross the Atlantic for a tour abroad than not—on the ground that the slight danger of disaster by the way is far more than compensated for by the general benefit to the health which is almost sure to result.

Let those, therefore, who are deterred from undertaking such a voyage by considerations relating to personal safety, dismiss their apprehensions as idle fears, and go forward bravely to reap the real benefits that lie concealed under the imaginary danger.

It is not surprising, however, that these apprehensions should be felt, and that minds of a sensitive constitution should be sometimes strongly affected by them, for the hope of benefit to he derived is weakened by diffusion, being spread over months and years, perhaps, of future life; while the danger, such as it is, is concentrated within a period of a few days—even, perhaps, during certain portions of the voyage, within a few hours.

Indeed, sometimes when at midnight the scream of the steam-whistle on deck is heard by the sleepless passenger in her berth, indicating that the fog and the darkness without are so dense that the only safeguard from collision with other ships, or with fishermen on the Banks, is in sounding that alarm, and then listening for the response to warn them away, and that against the still more imminent peril of an encounter with an iceberg there is no protection whatever, while yet all the time the steamer is driving on through fogs and mists and flying scuds of rain, and over foaming and surging seas, without the slightest abatement of its usual speed, the danger reaches the highest possible state of concentration ; and it is not surprising that the sensitive and the timid are sometimes entirely overpowered by it.

The truth is that, notwithstanding the extraordinary degree of exemption from disaster and calamity which has been attained in the navigation of the northern Atlantic, through the vast advances which have been made in modern times in nautical science and skill, there is probably no other great thoroughfare of commerce or of human intercommunication on the globe so beset with danger and difficulties as the voyage from New York to Liverpool.

The Gulf Stream brings a current of warm water fifty miles wide and a thousand feet deep—and flowing at the ordinary rate of the current of a river—from the tropical seas, and pours it out in a vast expanding mass over and beyond the Banks of Newfoundland, where it turns off to the eastward, and finally loses itself in the northern seas ; while, to the westward of it, a counter-current coming down from Baffin's Bay —a current of nearly equal magnitude and force—pours into it a stream of icebergs, ice-floes, and ice-cold water.

The effects of this confluence are, beneath the water, the accumulation of vast deposits of sand and rocky debris brought down by the ice, and in the atmosphere above an almost perpetual succession of fogs and mists and driving rains, accompanied by gales and squalls, and every other possible meteorological commotion.

The region most disturbed by the conflict between these opposing forces and temperatures is on the hither side the Atlantic, and affects chiefly the first half of the voyage ; and the .danger, moreover, is the greatest at that season of the year which would on other accounts be the most convenient and the most agreeable time for making the trip—namely, in the early months of summer.

The ice-floes break up, and icebergs are detached from the great Greenland glaciers crowding out from the land, in the early summer of one season : and as they require about a year for their twelve or fifteen hundred miles" voyage, they do not reach the track of the ocean steamers until the early summer of the next.

They drift very slowly at last, and melt very gradually under the feeble radiation of even June and July suns in the latitude of Labrador. Some portions both of the floes and of the icebergs reach as far south as the Banks of Newfoundland, but few go much farther south than this.

The Captain's Cabin

Illustration 5: The Captain's Cabin

Their advance ceases here, partly because the force of the current by which they are brought down becomes well-nigh exhausted, and partly because the masses of ice become by this time so diminished and so weakened by the increasing heat, both of the latitude and the season, that they are easily beaten to pieces by the waves and dissolved.

Sometimes, however, mountains of ice come down of such prodigious size that it is long before they entirely disappear. Captain Price informed us that on one of his voyages he passed two immense icebergs, and on his return voyage, after sailing nearly fifteen hundred miles to and fro, and making the usual stay in port, he passed them again. They had drifted during the interim about forty miles. They had diminished somewhat in size, but they were of such magnitude still, and their forms were so peculiar, that their identity could not be mistaken.

When we consider the dangers and difficulties resulting from all these causes which beset these seas, the iron-bound coasts, the shoals and submerged rocks which encumber the shores, the fogs, the ice, the tremendous gales characteristic of these latitudes, and the enormous magnitude and force of the billows which are produced by them, we shall perhaps conclude that the work of producing a structure which will contain one or two thousand beings, and convey them safely—dancing on its way over and through all these terrific commotions—and arrive safely at its destined port, is a very great exploit for so comparatively frail and diminutive a creature as man to perform.

And yet the Cunard Company have been sending a constant succession of such steamers between New York and Liverpool now for nearly thirty years, having entrusted them during that time with the conveyance of many hundreds of thousands of passengers, and without the loss thus far of a single life, through any fault or failure on their part, from the exposures and hazards which they have thus encountered. The accomplishment of this result is perhaps to be regarded as the greatest triumph of human science and skill over the forces of nature that the whole history of the dealings of man with the material world records.

If we regard the ship as a living monster forcing its way by its own peculiar organs of locomotion through these billows and storms, we must consider the state-room of the captain as the seat of its brain. The duties of the commander of a sea-going steamer are not only extremely various, hut they involve the possession of a combination of mental qualities and attainments most diverse in their character, many of them being such as are seldom conferred by nature, and are very difficult of attainment, but which are all absolutely essential to the successful execution of his charge. He must be a good ruler. No monarch can he more absolute than he in the control of every thing on board his ship, from the time of his dismissing the pilot, at the commencement of his voyage, to his taking the pilot at the end of it.

He has, however, three different communities to govern, entirely distinct from each other, and involving quite different methods and principles of treatment in the emergencies that occur. There are, first, the company of cabin passengers ; secondly, the ship's company, consisting of seamen, engineers, firemen, cooks, and stewards, sometimes amounting to hundreds in number ; and, thirdly, the emigrants—a body of men, women, and children, to the number often of more than a thousand.

Thus the commander of one of these ships has entrusted to his charge a heterogeneous community of one or two thousand souls : enough to form the population of quite a town. These, all packed together in the closest quarters, in the ship which he commands, he has the responsibility of conveying through mists and gales and driving storms of snow and rain, breasting the heaviest seas, and threading his tortuous way among tides and currents, and through fleets of fishermen, and among fields and mountains of floating ice, with only a plank between his little world of human hopes and fears and the world of waters, which, when in their angry moods, rage and roar around him, as if eager to make the ship and all its contents their prey. He has to find his way over this pathless deep by means of stars, which are constantly in motion, and by the sun, which on no two days pursues the same track through the skies.

Captain James Price

Illustration 6: Captain James Price

The needle of his compass is liable to be disturbed in its indications by many causes. A blow struck upon any portion of his iron ship may derange it ; and upon the variation of his chronometer to the amount of the fraction of a second during the voyage the question may depend whether he shall strike upon a rock or enter the port in safety at the end of it. One would suppose that the solicitude and anxiety which would attend the sustaining of responsibilities like these would be overwhelming. But they are not so. No class of men enjoy better health, or perhaps lead lives of greater freedom from anxiety and care, than these commanders.

The reason is, that they are as a class thoroughly qualified for their work ; and men do easily what they do well. One of our engravings represents the captain's state-room in the Minnesota, with the instruments upon its walls which serve as the ship's organs of sense.

There is the barometer, by which she perceives what is the condition of the atmosphere in respect to changes of density and pressure, and so presages coming storms ; and the sextant, through which the sun sends in at noon every day a report which determines her exact position on the sphere; and the chronometer, which carries with it the New York or Liverpool time, and shows, by comparison with the time of the ship, the easting or westing that has been made ; and a graduated quadrant, with a pendulum attached to it, which indicates the position of the ship upon her keel ; and the thermometer, by which the vicinity of ice is made known through the increasing coldness of the water ; and many others.

All these are, as it were, so many additional organs of sense for the captain—an extension of his perceptive faculties into the water, into the air, and even out to the sun and the stars. When we consider how intimate the acquaintance of this officer must be with the endlessly varied indications of all these instruments, in order to interpret them properly, and the vast amount of minute and special knowledge he must have of the currents and eddies, the rocks and shoals, the aspects of the weather, and even of the customs and usages governing the movements of other vessels that he is liable to meet on his track, we shall see how extended and how complicated, and how different from those of other men, must be the elements of thought with which his mind is stored, and by which it is ordinarily occupied.

In fact, so far from being worn down by the anxieties and responsibilities of their position, the captains of these steamers are chiefly attracted to their work by the dangers and hazards which invest it with peculiar romance. The storms and shipwrecks which fill the mind of landsmen with terror, not only have no terrors for the true sailor, the sailor of the highest type, but have actually, strange as it may appear, a positive attraction for him. No exigency is ordinarily able to surprise or daunt him. In fact, he has generally passed through more than one experience of shipwreck as part of his apprenticeship. How ship-captains are educated receives a striking illustration in the career of Captain Price, the senior commander and commodore of the Williams and Guion line.

He was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, a famous watering-place of England, in 1820. His parents did not intend him for the sea ; but the sea stories of his father. who was a ship-captain, filled him with an enthusiasm for "life on the ocean wave," and despite opposition, he took to the water from a boy. The ,dangers of this career did not daunt him. "

In fact," said he to the writer, "my imagination had been worked up to such a pitch that I thought the greater the danger and the more hazardous the position the greater the glory of a sailor's life." He rapidly worked his way up until he received the command of the ship on which he first embarked. A member of the Methodist Church from early youth, his religious principles and his good wife combined to keep him from those vices to which sailors are supposed to be peculiarly liable. When the Australian trade opened he took charge of a packet, and carried out some of the first gold-diggers.

In answer to our question, he told us that he could not tell us how often he had been around the world ; but the Cape of Good Hope, New Zealand, and Cape Horn were among the most familiar headlands of his acquaintance. He has been twice shipwrecked, once burned out at sea, once six days and nights upon the ocean in boats, once caught in floating ice, from which he extricated himself with difficulty.

The State Room

Illustration 7: The State Room

Such is the life and such the experiences which fit a man for a captaincy of an ocean steamer between New York and Liverpool, a route at once the most hazardous and the most responsible of any in the world. In a word, the chief officers of these steamers are selected from the very best which the commercial marine of the world can offer ; and after such a schooling it is not strange that they witness with perfect composure the rising winds and rolling waves which fill the inexperienced landsman with great but usually causeless alarm.

All is usually peace, contentment, and repose on the decks and in the cabins of the ship while she is gliding over the smooth water of the harbor ; but when, at length, she passes the outer forts, and emerging from the Narrows.

enters upon the swell of the sea, a very large portion of the passengers are compelled to retire to their berths, and for several days the deck and saloons seem well-nigh deserted. The sickness is not occasioned, as is often supposed, by the mechanical effect of the motion of the ship on the digestive organs, as these organs can endure far more violent movements than any produced by the oscillations of the waves without any inconvenience—as, for example, in running, jumping, riding on horseback, and going through the exercises of the gymnasium.

The derangement of the system by the motion of the sea is primarily an affection of the brain, the effects upon the other organs being secondary and symptomatic ; and the function of the brain through the disturbance of which the morbid action begins is what is called the "instinct of equilibrium."—that is, the instinct by which the mind, through some hidden action of the brain, takes cognizance of the relation of the body to the perpendicular. That this is an instinct, and not a faculty acquired by observation and habit, is shown by the fact that an infant will stretch its arms to save itself from falling, before it has ever had any experience of the pain produced by a fall.

Now when, as in almost all exercises and motions on land, we are surrounded by objects that are near us and stable, no matter how gentle or how violent our movements may be, while the eye is upon these objects the brain can retain cognizance of its position in respect to the perpendicular in all its motions. But when

there are no fixed objects in view on which the sense of equilibrium can lay bold to steady itself by, as it were—as, for instance, when a person is shut up in a coach, or in a closely-curtained sleigh, or when, on deck at sea, there is nothing but rolling and dancing waves about him—the brain is continually losing its equilibrium, and then recovering it by an effort, and by these efforts it becomes bewildered and fatigued. The first effect is a sense of giddiness in the head, which gradually becomes pain. The digestive organs, and especially the liver, begin soon to be affected, as they almost always are, through sympathy, in case of any injury or morbid action in the brain. But as the nausea and other such affections are only symptomatic of disturbance in certain functions of the brain, any remedies applied to the digestive organs must necessarily fail, as in fact they always do, of producing any thing more than a palliative effect.

The only modes of reaching the origin of the difficulty, in the brain, are two—first, by keeping surrounding objects that are fixed and stable in sight, so as to aid the proper organ of the brain in not losing the position of the perpendicular, and secondly, by assuming a horizontal position, so as to diminish the sense, and consequently the effect, of its loss. It is only the latter of these preventives that is available at sea.

On land, however, the former is almost always efficacious. If a lady is "stage sick," the best remedy is to open the window that she may look out. She often attributes the effect to the air ; but it is probably due, in a great measure, to the aid which the open window affords her for keeping the position of the perpendicular in mind, by means of the fixed objects of the landscape, which are thus brought distinctly into view.

It is on this principle that people are usually more affected by riding in a closed sleigh than in a closed carriage, although the motion is less —for the sleigh is more closely shut up than the carriage, and the surrounding objects are more entirely concealed ; whereas, in an open sleigh, people are seldom or never made sick. And so in the case of a swing, although the motion is so similar to that of a ship at sea, and a great deal more violent in respect to the rapidity and sometimes to the extent of the oscillations, few people become giddy, since the surrounding objects afford them such facilities for keeping the perpendicular in mind.

The Ladies' Cabin

Illustration 8: The Ladies' Cabin

At sea, there are no objects to aid in doing this; the rolling and surging billows around the ship, instead of rendering any aid, tend rather to increase the cerebral bewilderment and mental confusion. Where, however, there are objects within the range of vision, by means of which the eye can enable the brain to keep its reckoning, the effect is the same as in the case of a vehicle on land. In crossing the channel from Folkestone to Boulogne, or from Dover to Calais, where the land by day and the lights by night are in sight on one side or on the other during the whole passage, people sometimes keep themselves well by standing on deck, and steadily watching one shore or the other till the agitated portion of the water is passed. The brain is thus kept duly cognizant of its position, and performs its functions in a regular and healthy manner.

In the open sea, however, no facilities of this kind are at command. Here there is nothing stable but the horizon. It is probable that the view of the horizon, or rather the general impression always present to the mind when on the deck of a ship, of the relative positions and extent of the regions of sky and of sea, may be the real source of much of the relief which is usually ascribed to the freshness of the air. This is the more probable, as in all ocean steamers the most effectual measures are taken for the thorough ventilation of the cabins and state-rooms, and, indeed, for every inhabited portion of the ship.

Whether it is better for a passenger in danger of sea-sickness to remain quietly in his berth and yield his brain without resistance to the disturbing influences acting upon it, until it recovers its self-control by becoming accustomed to the motion, or to force himself upon the deck and there "fight it out." with the enemy in the open air, is a mooted question which will probably never be settled. Indeed, it is possible that there may be different classes of constitutions, rendering one course better in some cases and the other in others.

The lines are often drawn very decidedly between the parties advocating these two principles at sea. For a lady who has a brother or a husband to attend upon her, who is not himself sick, or is so self-sacrificing as to give up his own comfort for the sake of promoting hers, and who can consequently have a reclining chair or a mattress placed upon a settee, all nicely arranged for her, and her attendant ready to go and come for her, and provide for every want, it is probably better to he on deck ; for here, under these exceptional circumstances, she can have the benefit of the horizontal position, the open air, and effect of the sky and the horizon upon her sensorinm combined. But very few of the whole number of passengers can enjoy these advantages, and of gentlemen, except those who are very seriously sick, none.

The question, therefore, whether it is better to remain quietly in one"s berth or to go on deck and "take the air," depends much on the precise situation in which the party will find himself in the latter case. The condition of a lady lying upon a mattress, or even reclining upon an extending chair, with a pillow under her head and her body and limbs covered with blankets and shawls, is very different from that of her husband who sits by her side upon a camp-stool, with the bleak Atlantic winds whistling about his feet, and no support except some rigid wooden edge or bar against which he is crowded hard by the lurching of the ship at every plunge.

Sometimes under such circumstances the gentleman seems to feel inclined to think it more comfortable in the state-room below, while his wife wonders why he wishes to remain shut up in such narrow quarters when it is so much pleasanter and so much better to be on deck in the open air. If there is any selfishness hidden away, however secretly, in the breast of man or woman, it is pretty sure to find its way out to the surface at sea.

Quarter Deck

Illustration 9: Quarter Deck

Indeed traveling, in all its forms, is a wonderful means of bringing into action and so exposing to view the hidden traits of character—the bad as well as the good. A young man will get a deeper insight into the temper and disposition, and the real mental constitution and character, of the lady whom he is inclined to choose as his partner for life, by making one voyage to Europe in company with her party, than by half a dozen seasons of association with her in the balls and concerts of a great city.

The disabilities resulting from the motion of the sea are, in general, mainly overcome in a few days, and the ship, moreover, by that time is beginning to pass beyond the special domain of fogs, icebergs, and squalls, and to enter upon the broad and deep Atlantic, where there is at least some possibility of serene skies and gentle if not favoring gales.

The passengers then begin to emerge, one by one, from the cabins and state-rooms where they have been concealed. All the available nooks and corners on the decks, where a little shelter can be found from the raw winds, are occupied by convalescent invalids. The seats at the long tables in the great cabin begin to be better filled at least at four of the five daily meals which constitute the system at sea ; namely, breakfast, luncheon, dinner, tea, and supper.

At the rather brief intervals between these, when the stewards leave the tables free, groups are seen seated at them, some reading, some commencing their journals, some engaged in conversation, with a feeling of leisure and contentment which can nowhere else be so fully enjoyed. The ladies even sometimes bring out their work and establish themselves in cozy corners, where they form charming, though sometimes rather delusive, pictures of domestic industry and thrift.

Those who have not yet quite strength or courage to present themselves in public, make the ladies' cabin their resort—a small apartment, where they feel perfectly free from all the restraints and exactions of ceremony and dress, and can sit, or recline, or lie, as their inclination prompts them, and take their food when and how they please. Their gentlemen friends, such as are both agreeable and good-natured, are admitted to visit them there, to entertain the convalescents with reports of the weather, or the prospects of the voyage. and sometimes to read aloud some narrative or tale from the ship's library.

There are always a few, more slow to recover from the sickness, or more indolent or timid, that still keep to their state-rooms, where they receive the calls of their friends, and even sometimes invite company to dinner.

The cabins and state-rooms of an Atlantic steamer during the latter half of the voyage, when the weather is tolerable, are the scenes generally of a very active and incessant gossip —innocent because it is usually good-natured, and entertaining because it has the field entirely to itself. There is, in fact, nothing else to be done, and nothing to occupy the thoughts, for the mass of the company of passengers, but to inquire about, and talk about, their neighbors.

A very large portion, consequently, of the conversation that would be heard by an invisible listener in the various nooks and corners occupied by the different groups, would be found to consist of speculations and surmises, and the communication of intelligence, more or less indirectly obtained, in respect to other groups and parties, and of introductions and other preliminaries to the formation of acquaintanceship between one party and another.

In such a remarkably constituted society, consisting of a body of utter strangers to each other, but thrown by circumstances into the closest domestic intimacy, and exposed, moreover, as they all imagine, to common hardships and a common danger, it is very natural and very excusable that every body should wish to know who every body else is, and why and how they are crossing the Atlantic.

The gossip which is developed by this state of things is, we repeat, innocent, for it is good-natured—the sense of a common danger predisposing each one to feel kindly toward the rest. You can not read much at sea, partly because fixing the eyes upon the book tends to bring back the giddy and bewildering sensation in the head, from which you are just recovering, and also because there is so much going on all around you to distract your attention from the book.

The Galley

Illustration 10: The Galley

You can not without great difficulty write at all. There is nothing to be done but to observe your neighbors, and to speculate about them. Is that young lady a bride, or is the gentleman who is with her her brother ? Are that elderly gentleman and the pleasing young woman by his side husband and wife, or father and daughter? Is this pompous individual, who enters the dining-saloon with such an air, some mighty general, or a clerk of great personal pretensions, and proud of his first commission to Manchester to make purchases for his house ?

These speculations, and the inquiries which result from them, which under other circumstances would indicate only an idle curiosity, are very laudable here, since the more the passengers become acquainted with each other, the more agreeably they can make pass the otherwise tedious days.

Thus every body is interested in learning all he can about his neighbors—quietly and unobtrusively, of course, and with all proper caution and reserve. The ladies are aided very much by the stewardesses, who communicate to one party in one state-room what they have learned of another in another. Some of these stewardesses become quite expert in forming their estimates of the relationships and characters and positions of the various parties that come under their observation.

One of them on board a Cunard ship gave a lady passenger a rule by which she could always discover, she said, the true state of the case in respect to any couple which she saw together in the saloon. " If the gentleman is very attentive to the lady," she said ; " then they are going to be married. If the lady is very attentive to the gentleman, then they have just been married. If they do not seem to care any thing about each other at all, then they have been married some time !"

The good woman who gave this sage test was a middle-aged widow, so that besides the facilities for observation which she had enjoyed at sea, she had had opportunity, it seems, by her own experience, to know all about it.

Sometimes very warm friendships result from the acquaintances formed at sea, through the friendly intercourse which takes place among the passengers during the latter part of the voyage—friendships which are often cultivated and cherished through future life. More frequently, however, though the intimacy may become quite close and the attachment quite strong, while the company of passengers remain together, the acquaintance comes abruptly to an end amidst the confusion of the landing at Liverpool, and exists thereafter only as a pleasant recollection, and as one of the elements of the charm with which a prosperous sea voyage is invested in the memory and imagination of all sensible people, when it is once over.

We say all sensible people, for there are people who obstinately persist in occupying their minds exclusively while the voyage is in progress, and their recollections of it when it is past, with the irksome, disagreeable, and disquieting incidents and elements of it, to the exclusion of every thing else. Although the tables are loaded with every luxury that money can procure, and notwithstanding what would be supposed to be the insuperable difficulty of providing a great variety of food for such a number of guests, with the extremely limited and restricted conveniences that can be enjoyed on shipboard, there are always discontented and dissatisfied people to complain of the supplies.

A fashionable lady, who considers herself a model of refinement and politeness, will be thrown into a fretful and querulous humor, because the captain's report at noon makes the distance run during the preceding twenty-four hours ten or twenty miles less than she had hoped, and make herself and her party miserable by groaning over the length and tediousness of the voyage.

"Madam," said a venerable gentleman—whose age and position entitled him to the privilege of speaking plainly—to such a complainer, "here we are a thousand of us shut up in this wooden box in the middle of the Atlantic; immense furnaces under our feet, burning with furious fires ; a boiler with force pent up in it sufficient to blow us all in an instant in the air ; and gales and storms howling about the various regions of the sea, violent enough if they assail us to drive us off our course or send us to the bottom. So long. then, as we are all safe, and are headed toward our port, and are moving on—so long as all the fire is shut up in the furnaces, and all the force held in the machinery, and the winds and seas are not too violent for us to move on steadily through them, we won't utter a word of complaint because we are only going on prosperously at the rate of twelve and a half miles an hour instead of thirteen."

Fire Room

Illustration 11: Fire Room

The necessity imposed upon Americans of crossing the Atlantic in order to visit their mother country and the Old World is, in certain aspects of it at least, a vast additional element of enjoyment for those making this grand tour, for that which would be otherwise a simple and commonplace pleasure is invested by it with a certain character of romance and grandeur which nothing else could impart to it.

Crossing the Atlantic is an experience which strikes very deep into the soul, and produces changes in the habits of thought and of association which remain through all future life. Nor does the advantage consist merely in the elements of sublimity involved in the voyage itself.

The passage of the Atlantic invests with a portion of its own greatness and dignity the whole subsequent tour. Wherever the American goes in his rambles over Europe—among the Highlands of Scotland, in Paris, on the Rhine, or among the Alps—he carries with him the sense of his vast distance from home, and of the grand old ocean, with all its sublime accessories, that separates him from it ; and this adds a mysterious and half hidden but very real charm to all his adventures and to all the wonders that he sees.


Source: Harper's New Monthly Magazine, August, 1870. Volume XLI. Number 242 Pages 185 - 198. 14 pages. 11 exquisite engravings.

Return to Top of Page

Passenger Information, Steamships & Ocean Liners
Gjenvick-Gjønvik Maritime Archives

Search The Archives

Google Custom Search

Try and See Who You Will Discover

Join Our Mailing List And Tell A Friend

Join Our Mail List!

Tell A Friend!

Copyright © 2000-2013 Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives. All rights reserved. See Terms of Use.
Design by Paul K. Gjenvick

Real Time Web Analytics