A Journey of 5 Days That Changed Life Forever

In our last post we talked about the life that our mystery girl might have had once she arrived in North America.  After our trivia portion of the contest, we will be holding an essay portion where participants will give us their ideas about the life of our mystery girl after she arrived on our shores. 

In order to help contestants see the world from our mystery girl’s eyes, we thought it would be helpful to give you some details on her voyage on the Red Star Line.

Prior to the advent of steamer ships such as the fleet of the Red Star Line, passengers came across the ocean in sailing ships.  Irish immigrants actually called these “coffin ships” for the number of immigrants who actually died on board from disease, malnutrition, exposure or unsanitary conditions.  By the time our girl got her ticket on the Red Star Line, steamer ships shortened the 40-60 day Atlantic crossing to just about a week.  New laws were enacted to make sure shipping lines fed their steerage passengers nutritious food and sanitary codes were adhered to which made on board diseases less likely.

Even so, conditions were crowded, cramped and not what one would call, “healthy.”  Men and women were separated into dorms made up of row upon row of bunk beds, hardly separated at all, except but by iron partition bars.  If our girl sailed alone, she may have bunked in the women’s quarters.  If she sailed with her family, she would be been sent to the married people’s quarters.  Steerage was below deck, usually in the fore-section of the ship where the rolling of the waves was felt most strongly.  Many passengers spent the entire journey debilitated by seasickness.

Our girl would have had a simple breakfast of gruel or oatmeal every day.  She would get boiled meat or soup for her main meal of the day and dry biscuits the rest of the time.  If the weather was balmy, she might sleep outside on the lower deck.  At no time would the steerage passengers be allowed to mingle with the first and second class passengers.  Steerage passengers did not have lounges or church services.  They usually ate in their bunks or on deck, fed from large barrels of what looked a lot like animal feed. 

Ocassionally, passengers would stage improptu dancing or music. Passenger records show that these few bright moments aboard relieved the monotony of a hard Atlantic crossing and were treasured moments when passengers felt more like human beings than transported cattle.  One passenger’s records tell the story of an Irish immigrant who brought a single shamrock with him and took it for strolls on deck for fresh air.  It was one part of the homeland he could bring to his son who was waiting for him in California.

What items might our girl have brought with her in her steamer trunks?  She still looks young enough for dolls and toys, so perhaps some of these treasured objects sailed with her.  Perhaps, along with Family Bibles or religious books, her parents brought along family photos and image of the town where they lived.  They might have brought along pictures of relatives already in North America.  Families immigrating tended to travel as lightly as possible, so it’s likely that our mystery girl left precious belongings (maybe a pet?) behind.

Our essay portion of the contest will require you to think imaginatively about our girl’s journey and her life after the Red Star Line brought her to the Americas.  We’ll be keeping you all abreast of any new professional findings and also clues send in by you yourselves are all being examined.  In the meantime, let’s look again at this bright young face and see if we can conjure up a mental image of her life before and after the five or so days that changed her world forever.

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