National Archives at Philadelphia

The Red Star Line: Changing America's Face and Place in the World

In the spring of 2012, the Red Star Line Museum will open in Antwerp, Belgium. The museum will tell the story of the international shipping line, founded in Philadelphia in 1871, as joint venture between Americans and Belgians with ports in Antwerp, Liverpool (UK), Southampton (UK), New York City and Philadelphia. This web portal is created to link the National Archives' Red Star holdings to other efforts related to the museum's opening and to engage the public with a series of significant interconnected events in U.S. and world history regarding transportation, immigration, commerce, and national security that continue to shape America today.

The period immediately following the Civil War saw the development of large industrial and transportation enterprises. These enterprises changed the character of the American merchant marine and corporate maritime activities, as well as made possible the construction of iron-hulled, ocean-going steamships in American shipyards. The prosperous and influential Pennsylvania Railroad Company fostered a significant measure of this transformation. The company provided a $1 million bond guarantee in 1871 that enabled the construction of four transatlantic liners under the International Navigation Company, also known as the Red Star Line. With this move, the railroad sought to expand its operations by providing through-service for immigrants and trade from Europe into the interior of the United States, and compete with its rival the New York Central Railroad transportation services out of New York City. The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted to gain global control of passengers and freight from Europe, either by establishing American-flag steamship lines or by acquiring foreign-flag lines. Within a short few years, the railroad was able to increase its profits by 40%. This vertical integration helped the Pennsylvania Railroad become the largest railroad by traffic and revenue in the U.S. throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th Century. When Congress enabled American-registry of American-owned steamship lines in the 1890's, the federal government not only gave federal protection to the American merchant marine and shipping lines, but also established the country's intent to be a first-class maritime power alongside England and Germany.

The Red Star Line sailed between Philadelphia and Antwerp, Belgium. Its first liner, the Vaderland, carrying passengers and grain, landed in Philadelphia on February 18, 1873. The Pennsylvania Railroad, although seeking to keep quiet as possible its connection to the line, constructed a new terminal at Girard Point for handing petroleum and grain, as well as a large new freight house on Delaware Avenue at Dock Street. This allowed goods imported by Philadelphia merchants from Belgium, Holland and Germany to come directly to the city and no longer enter via the New York Customs House. Within ten years, this development along with that of other companies transformed the Philadelphia waterfront. Passengers on an arriving steamship could disembark, go through customs and board a westbound train within an hour. The Red Star Line weathered the depression of 1873 and added additional ships larger than those previously owned by the company, as well as opened New York-Antwerp service. One of the new ships, the Belgenland, had accommodations for 150 first-class and for 1,000 steerage passengers. The company's first and second class pleasure tourist trade was boosted by America's Centennial Exposition, which created the first great wave of tourism in U.S. history and helped to generate an American middle-class appetite for vacation travel away from home. The Line also served as important transportation for working class people returning to Europe to live.

Steerage, the cheapest transportation option, played an important role in Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe. Some authorities have credited the Red Star Line for more than 40% of this Jewish immigration that came to North America between 1873 - 1934; most travelling in steerage. Images of these travelers were captured in the works of Belgium artist Eugeen Van Mieghem as he sat in his mother's tavern on the Antwerp docks. The shipping line transported three million immigrants from Antwerp to the United States and Canada and by doing so transformed Antwerp as well as the destination cities of North America, like Philadelphia. Between 1883 and 1889, the line's Antwerp service carried an average 25,000 steerage passenger per year to New York and 40,000 passengers to Philadelphia in 1882 alone. The company's business benefited from the work of many charitable and commercial organizations that aided immigrants arriving from Europe. Among the commercial enterprises were the so-called "ethnic" or "immigrant" banks, conveniently located in Jewish neighborhoods where newly-arrived immigrants settled. These banks were places where recent immigrants could save money and make arrangements to purchase steamship tickets to bring their families across the Atlantic. Some of these businesses evolved into our modern day travel agencies.

The immigrant trade was very profitable for the Red Star Line company and its managers paid particular attention to the facilities offered for these patrons. It was also a major expense for immigrants. A typical second class ticket to cross the Atlantic would cost around $143 and steerage around $25 - $35, the latter being two to three weeks salary for a worker. The Red Star fleet became well-known to the knowledgeable traveling public, whether first and second class or steerage. However, like other shipping lines, the Red Star was hit hard when Congress passed more restrictive immigration regulations starting in 1921 by setting quotas as a result of fears about immigrant political radicalism and labor unrest over exploitive working conditions. Although immigration restrictions affecting Asians were in place since 1875, the new law and subsequent ones limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890, thus favoring Northern Europeans. The quotas remained in place until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which equalized immigration by allowing more immigrants from non-European countries. This latter law, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, has changed the ethnic make-up of America, making the country more diverse today.

Immigration and passenger travel are only one piece of the Red Star Line story. The story is also about America's rise as an international and commercial power by the end of the 19th Century. The early part of the 20th Century saw the development of commercial holding companies with subsidiary shipping and trade companies, as well as ship building companies, with interlocking directorates. The import-export of various products and international mail services were also important aspects of the Red Star Line's business model and prosperity, and is evidenced by the construction of first Red Star liner, the Vaderland. From the ship's keel up, it was designed to carry a combination of passengers, general cargo and petroleum products. Although having passengers and petroleum products together was quickly abandoned, the ship's services always included other valuable commercial cargo. The Red Star Line handled its cargo in Philadelphia through the International Mercantile Marine holding company, the world's largest steamship conglomerate. In 1901 banking magnet J. P. Morgan and Red Star Line President Clement A. Griscom engineered a merger that created the International Mercantile Marine Corporation. This grandiose speculation later collapsed, however.

International mail services, subsidized by national governments, as well as governmental protections and registry played a critical role in the solvency of shipping lines. To address these issues for the Red Star and related companies, Clement A. Griscom, President of the Red Star Line from 1888 - 1902, is credited as instrumental in pressuring Congress in 1890 to change federal policies, subsidies and registration laws and to build an all-American merchant marine that would rival that of Britain and Germany. His efforts were helped by Americans' reviving interest in navies and maritime affairs and a compromise Griscom was able to strike with America's largest ship builder, Charles Cramp, that made possible contracts to the Cramp Shipyard in Philadelphia to construct high-performance vessels exceeding 8,000 gross tons for Griscom's shipping line. Senator William P. Fryre of Maine, a leading proponent of federal aid and protection of American merchant marine, put forward the legislative changes in Congress. Fryre's bill was the first significant piece of legislation to aid the American merchant marine in 32 years. It was followed by subsequent acts of Congress, which resulted in the much needed steps in formulating a United States merchant-marine policy. The new laws had five goals:

  • To secure regular and quicker service to countries now reached;
  • To make new and direct commercial exchanges with countries not now reached;
  • To develop new and enlarge old markets in the interest of producers and consumers under the reciprocity treaties completed and in progress;
  • To assist the promotion of a powerful naval reserve; and
  • To establish a training school for American seamen.

On May 10, 1892 Congress authorized American registry of Griscom's shipping line and the company's umbrella name changed to the American Line. 1891 saw the beginning of nautical training at the state level for an officer corps among merchant sailors. Finally, in 1936, Congress passed the landmark Merchant Marine Act and two years later, the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps was established. The first training was given at temporary facilities until the Academy's permanent site in Kings Point, N. Y. was acquired in early 1942. (Learn about NARA's holdings on the Merchant Marines)

Today, airlines have replaced shipping lines and ocean liners as the primary means for intercontinental travel. Although passenger service has diminished, every hour of every day America's shipping lanes are filled with all types of ships, carrying all types of goods, materials, and merchandise bound for foreign ports or arriving in the U.S. for consumers. Vessels, owned by U.S. companies, registered and operated under the American flag, comprise the U.S. merchant marine. This fleet is a major part of the nation's system of commerce, helping to guarantee access to foreign markets for sale of our manufactured goods. In time of war or national emergency, the U.S. merchant marine is vital to national security and an essential part of American sea power as the "fourth arm of defense," delivering military supplies oversees to the nation's forces and allies. Most recently, the merchant marine crew of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama faced down Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.