Friday, December 4, 2009

Leaving Home

SS President Lincoln, courtesy of Norway Heritage

Emigration became a definite possibility for Baba when part of her parents' farm was sold, and according to a provision in their will, she received nearly $300 as her share of the inheritance.*  Agents from American coal and industrial companies visited European villages encouraging people to emigrate and fill the jobs available in America. An emigrant could purchase a ticket in his home village from one of these agents which would take him the entire route to his destination. Baba spent about $260* for one of these tickets. It provided for train passage to Hamburg, steerage passage across the Atlantic to New York’s Ellis Island, and train passage from New York to Pittsburgh.

She left her home village in November of 1911 in a wagon bound for the nearest train station, likely located in Michalovce, the largest city in the far eastern end of Slovakia. Baba knew this was probably the last view she would ever have of her homeland.   The railroad route took Baba and her companions (her sister-in-law Mary Szemjan and Grandpap's cousin Mary Szorokacs) north through the Carpathian Mountains to Krakow (then a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), then northwest through Prussia, to the port of Hamburg, Germany. They arrived there on November 16, 1911. They waited five days until their ship, the SS President Lincoln, left Hamburg for America on November 22.

Even though laws had been passed in many countries in the 19th century to improve steerage conditions aboard ships carrying immigrants, the quarters were far from being pleasant or comfortable, and food was always scarce. Seasickness struck, and was worse for those in steerage who were forced to spend most of their time below deck in their berths breathing foul air and being tossed about with every lunge of the ship. Some steerage passengers had apparently not brought enough of their own food supply to supplement the meager servings provided by the ship's cooks, so there was frequent stealing of food from the kitchen during the night. When prepared food was brought to those below there were sometimes fights over the portions, as naturally each desperate passenger was looking out for himself.

Between Decks Feeding Time courtesy of Norway Heritage

This voyage of the President Lincoln was far longer than the usual 7-10 day trip common in 1911.  It took  22 days at sea, and though Baba mentioned the length she never said why.  It's possible that ice-pack delayed the ship.  It was only 4 months later that an iceberg sunk the Titanic.  The SS President Lincoln's arrival in New York on December 14, 1911 hardly came soon enough for its passengers.

*NOTE: These dollar amounts are what Baba gave me, but I am now convinced that she was converting the amounts into 1980 dollars.  I cannot say what the cost of land would have been then, but every bit of information I've uncovered in regards to the cost of immigration in 1911 names amounts less than 10% of this number.

For a description of the President Lincoln and details from one of its dramatic harrowing voyages, see

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