Here’s something that didn’t make the cut in Baby Boomer Army Brat. In my first draft, I started all the way back, when our ancestors came to America. It quickly became clear that was just way too much information. The memoir now starts with Dad and Mom getting married, just before World War II.
“C’mon George, you’re holding us up!”
The parents of my great-great-grandfather, George Wagner, probably yelled something similar to him as they waited to board their ship from Germany to their new life in the United States, probably in the early 1850s.
It was no casual picnic. The family had been setting aside money for years for the trip to the fabulous New World and the new opportunities that waited in the US. We don’t know how many Wagner relatives came, but families were large in those day. It cost over a third of a worker’s annual income to bring an average-sized family to the US. With the limited space onboard a trans-Atlantic vessel, the Wagners would have carefully planned what they could bring on board. They had room for only the bare necessities, such as a few changes of clothes, tools, a family Bible, a few other small family heirlooms, basic hygiene items, and, if they’d been forewarned about the horrid food onboard, a small stockpile of their favorite foods that would keep for a while.
The family left from Bense, Bavaria, in southern Germany. After having having said goodbye to their friends and other family members, they would have taken a train to Hamburg and then made their way to the bustling departure port. While they could have smelled the dirty water, they couldn’t board the ship yet. They had to pass a series of medical examinations, which sometimes held up travelers for a week or so for physical exams and awaiting results of lab tests.
The trip itself would have been an awful, disgusting voyage characterized by seasickness, inadequate food, lack of privacy, cramped living quarters, vomit on the decks, and disease. The experience could stretch on for what seemed like an eternity. Up until the 1850s, most emigrants from Germany traveled on sailing ships, with an average voyage to the US taking forty-three days. Later, steamships shortened the voyage to 12-14 days. Living conditions on board were primitive. Passengers had to sleep in narrow bunks below deck. During storms, the door from the outside deck would be locked, leaving them with little light or fresh air. The stench of vomit and overflowing chamber pots was overwhelming. Constant jostling from weather and waves made even standing difficult on many days. On the worst days, passengers could not even stay in bed to sleep, tossed about and sliding over vomit and God only knows what else on the cabin floor.
The ship would priovide little variety in food. If a passenger was lucky, the vessel would be governed by at least some basic regulations, such as the British Passenger Act. Its minimum requirements included biscuits, wheat flour, oatmeal, rice, tea, sugar, and molasses. Food had to be issued in advance and not less often than twice a week. Passengers could bring additional provisions, and many did. The captain also had to ensure that each passenger received three quarts of water daily. Often, though, the water quality was poor. Prior passengers sent word back as to what to bring. Coffee was preferable to tea because at least it offerend some taste; the water was so bad it made the tea tasteless. Even the process of trying to eat was difficult. Many used their trunks as tables, and, in rough waters, struggled to prevent these makeshift tables from sliding back and forth across the deck.
Seasickness was constant. Many passengers threw up after eating their first meal aboard ship and continued to throw up often. Although some passengers adjusted to the constant rocking and bouncing of the ship, others spent the entire trip nearly bedridden with nausea. Occasionally, those with overwhelming seasickness starved to death during the voyage.
Life on board wasn’t all drudgery though. Couples got married, perhaps by a fellow passenger who was a minister, or, if the couple had money or connections, by the captain. Women had babies, and couples conceived babies. Many passengers celebrated birthdays. They held parties for many of those occasions. Passengers also made time for playing games, dancing, and writing letters home. Even though the conditions were harsh, the passengers were on a tremendously exciting adventure.
Perhaps the travelers thought the worst part of the trip—worse than the constant motion, the poor food, and the cramped and uncomfortable sleeping quarters—was the danger of life at sea: storms, poor ship construction, and ships simply being lost at sea for unknown reasons. Actually, however, the worst danger was disease, which killed far more passengers than storms or shipwrecks. Illnesses like typhus, cholera, and dysentery would spread throughout ships in epidemic proportions due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions. Sometimes upon landing, a large percentage of passengers went straight from the ship to a hospital, where survival rates were grim.
After the ship arrived in New York and the passengers disembarked, immigration officials herded them to Castle Gardens, located across from the Statue of Liberty on an island off the tip of Manhattan. This was the predecessor to the famous Ellis Island. Hundreds of immigrants crowded through Castle Gardens’ doors each day. There, the immigrants reported their name and destination. Government officials gave them information: where they could purchase train tickets, exchange money, seek directions, learn about employment opportunities, and use other services. The immigrants could also sleep on the floor there for a couple of nights until they got their bearings. Amazingly, given the experiences conveyed in “The Godfather” and other movies, the government was attempting to shield immigrants from the many thieves and thugs who hung around the harbor waiting to prey upon them.