My own grandfather, coming from Austria to Antwerp to await his steerage passage on the Red Star Line would have most likely stayed in the bustling city for a day or more before his departure.  I often wondered what his experience would have been like?  With a mere $20.00 in his pocket, where would he have found lodgings for himself, his wife and his infant child? This week I received this letter from a reader who was similarly fascinated by his own family history and intrigued by the question of lodging:

Dear Ms. Kelly

In your Red Star Line Museum blog entry of July 11, 2011, A Voyage to a New Life: Our Mystery Girl’s Own Experience, you mention cheap hotels near the docks in Antwerp.  My great-grandmother and five of her children (11 and under) embarked on the Red Star Line’s Westernland on March 22, 1890 in steerage class.  More than seven decades later, one of those children recalled that the night before their departure they had stayed at a “barracks-like” hotel.  They may have well been put up for the night by the Red Star Line.  I doubt that I will be able to identify the hotel, but I wonder if you know of any resources that would have information on the cheap hotels in the vicinity of the docks?  Any leads will be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your attention.

Joel Weber

From documents sent to me by the Red Star Line Museum research staff, I have found out that most of the lodging used by steerage passengers (such as our mystery girl, perhaps) was owned by the shipping companies like the Red Star Line but operated mostly by foreigners.  By the 1920’s as immigration began to be more closely regulated by North American ports, there remained only a few.  There would have been two categories of hotels: reception hotels which catered to immigrants who had just arrived in the city and “quarantine hotels” that received passengers who had already had their medical check and “disinfection.”

In 1907, around the time of our mystery girl’s departure (and the year of my own grandfather’s departure from Antwerp), there were 40 such hotels in the city.

Although they were disinfected weekly and supervised by a physician once a month, critics who examined the conditions talked about lice, overcrowding and other unsafe and unsanitary conditions.Because these establishments were purpose-driven and have closed after the Red Star Line ceased to populate them with passengers, it may be challenging to find the exact establishment where your ancestors (or our mystery girl) stayed.

But a visit to the new museum with its original buildings that are of the same time and construction as these hotels, will give Red Star Ancestors like Joel a vivid idea of the conditions that were dealt with in order to cross the ocean and start a new life.  There will also be artifacts, pictures, letters and personal remembrances that will give us a unique vantage point on the challenges, discomforts and adventures our families braved.

Thank you for your message, Joel.  We hope to see you in Antwerp soon!

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