The Red Star Line Museum tells a story that is both universal and specific. From the beginning of time people have been on the move in search of a better life, to escape poverty, war and persecution.
In 1872 the Red Star Line was set up with the backing of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company that was eager to extend its network. With two partners in Antwerp it hoped to bring migrants to the US, who would travel further on its railroad network. A first ship belonging to what was formally called the Belgian-American Navigation Company sailed for Philadelphia in 1873. The company's hope was not forlorn. Between then and the company's demise in the 1930's two million passengers boarded Red Star Line steamers in Antwerp bound for the US and Canada. New York was soon the main destination.
The Red Line Star was based on the Rhine Quay with two departures for America each and every week. The Red Line Star Museum in based in a building erected by the City of Antwerp just before the Great War. It served as a customs building.
The Red Line Star Museum tells the story of the millions of passengers who undertook this trip, often for very different reasons. Some were eager to escape poverty in Flanders or elsewhere in Europe. Others, including many Jews, fled Europe to escape persecution as well as poverty.
Scientist Albert Einstein was one such person. He boarded the ship 'Belgenland' in 1933. A speech written on the back of a ship's menu is among the exhibits as well as his resignation letter to the Prussian Academy of Sciences written on paper with Red Star Line heading.
Musician Irving Berlin was another passenger on the Red Star Line. His piano still stands at the museum in Antwerp.
The museum shows the routes people took from Russia and Poland. How they made their way to Antwerp by rail via Lviv (Lemberg), Crakow, Dresden, Leipzig and Düsseldorf. Crisis is farming fuelled emigration from Germany. Whole villages upped sticks and travelled to the US. People tended to head for areas in the US and Canada where kinsfolk and other acquaintances were already based. In this way they could build a support network and counter homesickness e.g. people from one area in Bavaria all headed for Lancaster in Pennsylvania.
Belgians were a minority among the emigrants on board the Red Star Line. Poverty encouraged many to leave Flanders but with the Industrial Revolution underway and in full swing in Wallonia and Northern France these were the choice destinations. Between 1871 and 1930 some 137,000 Belgians immigrated to the US. Most did so from Antwerp, Rotterdam or Le Havre. In the US they headed for the area of the Great Lakes: Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, but also the Midwest. From the end of the 19th century more and more Belgians chose Canada as their destination. The image of Canada as a wealthy country with many opportunities persisted here for many years.
Migrants arriving in Antwerp were dazzled by the grandeur of Antwerp's Central Station and the luxury of the shops and hotels of this bustling city, but many ended up in cheap, often filthy hotels. If you had bought your ticket beforehand you were luckier and a shipping company official would collect you from the Central Station platform.
Migrants were easy to identify thanks to their exotic clothes. Locals viewed them with a mixture of curiosity and pity.
Fear of the transmission of contagious diseases like cholera and typhus led to draconian measures. The American and Canadian authorities insisted on the checks even overseen by the US and Canadian consulates in Antwerp. From 1908 till 1914 doctors even checked arrivals at Antwerp Central Station. Shipping companies had an incentive to ensure passengers departed for and arrived in the US healthy. Migrants refused by the US immigration authorities at Ellis Island were sent back at the expense of the shipping company.
Most checks were carried out at the Red Star Line buildings on the Rhine Quay. Men and women were separated. They had to take off all their clothes that were deposited in boxes ready for disinfection. They were then checked by a doctor before they took an hour long shower!
First and second class passengers could leave the boat at Ellis Island as long as they weren't displaying any symptoms. Steerage or third class passengers underwent more strenuous checks. Ten percent were picked out for a serious medical examination. Not everybody was given access to the US. You had to be able to show you could support yourself and bigamists, criminals, anarchists and anybody with a contagious disease was barred.
First class passengers could enjoy the luxury that the shipping companies reserved for wealthy Europeans eager to visit the US. But for steerage passengers the crossing was tough. They were usually packed below deck. If they were lucky they could go on deck for a breath of fresh air when they also saw second and first class passengers strolling on their separate decks. Competition between shipping companies and national regulations meant that conditions improved, but still many were pleased the trip only lasted ten days.
When war broke out in 1914 the passenger steamers stopped operating. Red Star Line vessels sailed for England. The company set up HQ in Liverpool and its ships were used as hospital ships for US and Canadian servicemen. Some ships also brought much needed aid to Belgium via the Netherlands that remained neutral.
US restrictions on immigration after the war started the demise of the Red Star Line that was eventually wound up in 1937.
The Red Star Line Museum is located in the Montevideostraat 3 in Antwerp. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 10AM till 5PM. Take tram 7 and alight at MAS.