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The Port of Rotterdam - A View From 1912


LIKE every newcomer to Rotterdam we resolved, very early after arrival in the city, on a jaunt along the Boompjes. The name itself sounded inviting—it suggested plump Dutch merchant-adventurers, standing near the gang-planks to their East Indiamen, watching the laborers bringing spice and essence from the holds. The Boompjes, as we had happened to know, were the wharves of Rotterdam.

Technically speaking, the Boompjes is the wide, cobbled street, with the warehouses hidden behind the ancient trees, that parallels the river. Everyone, however, has applied the term to the wharves as a whole.

Hundreds of ocean liners are at all times to be seen here—freighters only, some of them; others, again, with great armies of passengers. Such passengers, too, as are some of them, Emigrants out of Holland or folk going to visit kin in the far Dutch possessions.

Pending sailing time these come off the boats and walk the Boompjes, and so one will see women, say in threes, with white caps upon the head and the strings hanging loose a'purpose, and over the back an immaculate white shawl put into a 'V' on a waist of black. You never will forget those women!

Their skirt is of scarlet, the apron is white, and, country folk though they are, they wear long white gloves. We of America hardly think of Dutch emigration—it has almost ceased to the West, but out in the Dutch possessions they count each incoming ship for its new house-holders and settlers.

The world around Dutch sailors are found before the mast and their faces are wont to turn homeward to these Boompjes. They tell you that the district gets its name from the trees all along the river front of the town. Friendly fellows are these mariners, and one may go aboard almost all the ships in their care, when at anchor.

Quite different that from the silly regulations prescribed at Liverpool and great English ports.

Far at the upper end of the Boompjes we note two bridges crossing the river, just beyond the big hotels. One is a railway bridge, in loopings of iron, set on nine buttresses. It was opened in 1877. The next year the Dutch opened the other, the Wilhelms-Brug, for passenger and vehicle traffic. It has a length of 930 yards, and rests on four buttresses. The bridges give us a better idea of the actual width of the river.

Over on the left bank of the Maas one has the newer part of town, where ships discharge their cargo. A landmark, in the offing, is a monument to the engineer Stielljes, who planned the entire harbor. He died some thirty-four years ago, but his memory is far from forgotten.

Of course, Rotterdam port is subdivided for various purposes. Near at hand we have the Konigs-Hafen, with a length of 1,100 yards. Next this is the wharf of a Dutch-American steamship line and then drawbridges, allowing passage for the largest steamers arise.

Ciose to this is the island of Feyenoord, with two harbors, and beyond that more of the American steamships, following thereupon is the drawbridge to the Binnen-Haven, a span. 1,000 yards in length, and then you are come to the Spoorweg-Haven.

Measurements are given in yards to all of these, and this harbor is set at 1,300 yards. The very largest ships enter at this point. Farther on is the Dock-Hafen, where ships are repaired, and, subsequent on it, one has the Petroleum Harbor.

On the east side of the Feyenoord there are the works and wharves of the interestingly named "Xederland Maatschappy von Scheeps
en Werks-Stingbouw Fijinoord," which, literally translated, is just a plain shipbuilding concern, employing some one thousand men.

Up and down these wharves the busy life of Rotterdam centers. You turn from them, round a corner and you are on the canal, with still other shipping. From the windows of the hotels, too, you get, with just a turn of the head, a sea of masts, of boats and bridges on the one hand, and quiet canal-boats on the other.

Rotterdam, authorities tell us, lives, well-nigh, from the sea. It is only fifteen miles from here to the North Sea and the Maas or Mease River is tidal at this point, thus allowing the very largest ships to come to this point.

There will be a rise of tide of from four and a half to eight feet against the wind. Authorities further state the place to be the most active Dutch seaport—though other towns would dispute this. Half the native imports enter Holland by sea and almost all of them through this place. Half her exports, too, pass out via Rotterdam.

You marvel at the variety of the shipments. Cargoes of grain and coffee, sugar, tobacco, rice, tea and spices are most in evidence. The longshoremen bring the coffee off the boats in heavy brown sacks and if they make a rip or two in these who knows or perhaps cares?

So with the other things that are hauled off the ships here. So one finds on the Boompjes an army of folk whose occupation might be termed that of gleaners. Women and children very largely, these are—but there are men as well.

They wade the mud, the sloughs of the wharves, picking up the little grains of coffee, wheat, spice, which their practised eyes detect so readily. They toss these into a sack whose interior consists of five, maybe six, compartments—one, of course, for each sort of loot.

When the day's work is ended, you would be surprised at how much these folk will have garnered. Then they wash it, let it sundry next day, while again they're at their work, and, by and by, they sell it.

The exports of Rotterdam, too, afford the gleaners a chance of a pittance. In addition to the shipbuilding, Rotterdam has sugar-mills and distilleries whose products make their way onto these ships. And so, too, there are great machine works, which manufacture the machinery employed on many of the vessels.

From the back-country seven main canals intersect Rotterdam, and a railway viaduct over a mile in length, built on piles of cast iron alternating with piers of stone, helps the commerce of the city in the amount to be shipped seaward.

Mingling with the mariners on the docks, here are North Sea fishermen, another factor in the port life. Scheveningen is their great habitat and travelers recount of watching the first fishing-fleet leave that place in June, accompanied by a gunboat, to do honor to the greatness of the fisheries.

Time out of mind the first haul has been sent the King—or the Queen, as it now is—and in return Her Majesty sepds her loyal subjects a gift of five florins.

In fact, whenever time hangs heavy in Rotterdam, one can find something to interest on the Boompjes—if it's nothing more than the loaders, with the handkerchiefs round head and neck, bringing on or off the cargo.

Tourists make a point of walking the railway bridge across the wide river, to survey the stream where its hodge-podge of ocean-ships and canal boats is queerest. Then you come to the farther side, where a cobbled street, lined with trees, hides shops that purvey to the sailors.

Near the point where the drawbridge extends across to the island, idle sailors, in black trousers and yellow coats, and wearing blue shirts, sadly tattered, linger. Each of these fellows has all his possessions bound in a great handkerchief, which rests on the pavement before him. Give him the chance of a job and he and his burden can be away to the ends of earth—on any manner of boat—in a jiffy.

Police, too, are numerous, for strikes make trouble betimes at Rotterdam. One such, back in 1900, required a man-of-war and a troop of cavalry to put it down.

Here and there immense crowds of the starving stand in line at a door where a sign announces ONE position vacant.

That's the other side of the story of great, prosperous Rotterdam. It's not the one one likes to dwell upon, but it serves as foil to the picture of the city's greatness.

Koch, Felix J. "Rotterdam and the Boompjes: A Layman's Peeps at Famous Ports," in The American Marine Engineer, New York, Volume VII, No. 6, June 1912, Pages 7-8.

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