Overview of Transatlantic Travel - Ocean Passenger Travel
There are, undoubtedly, many men and women in New York today who went down to the Battery and cheered and waved their hands in greeting to the first steamship that entered this port from Europe.
This important event took place on April 23, 1838, and it was doubly interesting and significant because not only the first transatlantic steamship came to anchor in the harbor on that day, but the second also.
Steam travel across the sea thus beginning with a race that was earnestly contested and brilliantly won. Furthermore, it was a race that attracted infinitely more attention than any of the contests that have succeeded it.
Two steam-vessels had crossed the Atlantic in years previous, both having started from this side; the Savannah, from Savannah, in 1819; (Note 1) and the Royal William, from Quebec, in 1831.
Neither of these voyages had demonstrated the feasibility of abandoning the fine sailing packets and clippers for steamers when it came to a long voyage.
The Savannah used both steam and sail during eighteen of the twenty-five days required for passage to Liverpool, and more than one clipper overtook and passed her during the voyage.
The Royal William had to utilize all her hold for coal in order to carry sufficient fuel to ensure completion of the voyage. The reasons for the commercial failure of such craft are, therefore, apparent.
They proved to be available and profitable for coastwise traffic, and meantime inventive genius was at work on plans and models and theories all intended for the construction of a steamship capable of carrying goods and passengers between Europe and America, and of outrunning the packets.
Public interest, accordingly, was deeply stirred on both sides of the ocean when, in 1837, it was learned that two steam-vessels were on the stocks, building for the American service.
These were the Sirius, at London, and the Great Western, at Bristol. It was these vessels that made the first race; the Sirius making the trip, measured from Queenstown, in eighteen and a half days, and the Great Western in fourteen and a half days.
The Sirius, having had nearly four days' start, came in a few hours ahead of the winner. She brought seven passengers, and whether the Great Western had others than her crew on board, cannot now be ascertained.
At this time there were several lines of sailing vessels in operation between America and Europe. Among the most important of which were Williams & Guion's Old Black Star Line, afterward merged into the Guion Line of Steamships; Grimshaw & Co.'s Black Star Line; C. H. Marshall & Co.'s Black Ball Line; and Tapscott's Line.
All these concerns conducted a profitable business in carrying passengers, and the ships were provided with accommodations for the three classes into which travelers 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 steamship 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, the immigrants had no choice — the steamships carrying none but cabin passengers. The rates were, £30 for the first cabin; £8 for the second cabin; and £5 to £8 for steerage.
The appointments of cabins and staterooms were meager as compared with the great steamships of today, but the table fare was substantially the same that is provided now.
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 passengers were looked after by the British Government, which instituted an official bill of fare. These matters will be described in greater detail further on.
In the Marine News, on April 4, 1838, published in New York, the agents of the Sirius advertise her as a "New and Powerful steamship, 700 tons burden, 320 horse-power." The advertisement continues :
This vessel has superior accommodations and is fitted with separate cabins for the accommodation of families, to whom every possible attention will be given. Cabin, $140.00, including provisions, wines, etc.
Second cabin, $80.00, including provisions.
Commenting upon the arrival of the Sirius and Great Western, the New York Courier and Enquirer of April 24, 1838, said :
What may be the ultimate fate of this excitement—whether or not the expenses of equipment and fuel will admit of the employment of these vessels in the ordinary packet service, we cannot pretend to form an opinion.
But of the entire feasibility of the passage of the Atlantic by steam, as far as regards safety, comfort, and despatch, even in the roughest and most boisterous weather, the most skeptical must now cease to doubt.
The "fate of the experiment," as far as the Sirius was concerned, was decided by the initial voyage.
She had taken on four hundred and fifty tons of coal at Queenstown, all of which had been consumed before passing Sandy Hook, and had it not been for the sacrifice of spare spars and forty-three barrels of rosin to the demands of the furnace, she would not have entered the upper bay under steam.
Nevertheless, there were people who trusted her capability to get back to Queenstown with the same quantity of coal, and among these confident, not to say, venturesome travelers, were the Quiet Flirtation.
Chevalier Wyckoff and James Gordon Bennett, Sr. The Sirius made better time on the eastward trip, but she never again crossed the ocean. For many years she plied between Cork and Dublin.
As a business venture, the Great Western was more successful, and she made in all thirty-seven round voyages between Bristol, or Liverpool, and New York. Sixty-six passengers sailed in her on her first voyage from New York.
Enthusiastic reporters of that day record that at least one hundred thousand persons crowded the Battery and other points of view to see her off. She had been advertised as follows :
BRITISH STEAM-PACKET SHIP GREAT WESTERN,
JAMES HOSKEN, R.N., Commander:
Having arrived yesterday from Bristol, which place she left on the 8th inst., at noon, will sail from New York to Bristol on Monday, May 7th, at 2 o'clock P.M.
She takes no Passengers. Rates in the Cabin, including Wines and Provisions of every kind, 30 guineas; a whole Stateroom for one person, 50 guineas. Steward's fee for each passenger, £1 10s Sterling. Children under 13 years of age, half price. No charge for Letters or Papers.
The Captain and Owners will not be liable for any Package unless a Bill of Lading has been given for it. One to two hundred tons can be taken at the lowest current rates.
Passage or freight can be engaged, a plan of the cabin may be seen, and further particulars learned, by applying to RICHARD IRVIN, 98 Front St.
Other steamships made experimental voyages across the Atlantic after this, and several attempts were made to establish regular lines, that is, a service with stated times of sailing from one year's end to another. 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 to designate the line.
Mr. Cunard and his associates had been keen observers of the various experiments in steam navigation, and naturally, they profited by others' failures.
By no means, the least important feature of their enterprise, by which it differed from previous ventures, and by which it secured a fighting chance for prosperity, was an arrangement with the British Government for carrying the mails.
The first mail contract covered a period of seven years at £60,000 annually. This service was monthly in the beginning, afterward fortnightly, and the points touched were Liverpool, Halifax, and Boston.
Eventually, with increased subventions from the Government, a weekly service was established between Liverpool and New York, as well as a semi-monthly service between Liverpool and Boston.
The first fleet of the Cunard Line consisted of four vessels—the Britannia, Acadia, Caledonia, and Columbia. Another steamship, the Unicorn, made what was probably a voyage of announcement for the company.
The Unicorn was the first steam-vessel from Europe to enter Boston Harbor, where she arrived on June 2, 1840. Although Boston made as much fuss over this event as New York had over the arrival of the Sirius and Great Western two years before, regular communication with Europe was not established until the arrival of the Britannia, the real pioneer of the Cunard Line.
She left Liverpool on Friday, July 4, 1840, and made the voyage to Boston, including the detour to Halifax with a delay there of twelve hours, in fourteen days and eight hours.
That Mr. Cunard was correct in believing that transportation by steam would stimulate travel between the continents is clear enough to us now, but he and his associates must have felt justified in the undertaking by the fact that the Britannia carried ninety cabin passengers on her first trip.
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 staterooms 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. "Stateroom" was much more of a misnomer then than it is now.
Note 1: See The Development of the Ocean steamship, by Commander F. E. Chadwick, U.S.N., in SCRIBNER'S MAGAZINE for May, 1887
Source: Gould, John H., "Ocean Passenger Travel," in Scribner's Magazine, Vol. IX, No. 4, April 1891, p. 398-403