Port of Dreams – Hamburg, Germany 1850-1938



1850 – 1938


Over 100 years ago the Emigration Halls in Hamburg were the last homestead to the European emigrants.  Shortly before the departure, when the “New World” was within the grasp of the emigrants, the Emigration Halls were renowned as the “port of dreams.”

The journey on the early emigration ships from a present day perspective seems like a journey of hardship.

The majority of emigrants arriving in Hamburg before 1870 were used to poor circumstances, such as living and sleeping with a great number of people in a single room and not having access to running water or sanitary facilities, thus the stay on a vessel was only one last exhausting step to a better life.

The emigrant ships of the first third of the 19th century were sail ships of 40-50 meters length with a stowage holding up to 200-300 tons and room for 60-80 passengers.

There were no particular assigned rooms for emigrants and the prices for the passage were negotiated singularly, not depending on any basic price.

The emigrants were a sort of extra cargo in stifling, dark holds; furthermore, mattresses and food supplies for the 6-8 week journey had to be brought by them.

Due to diseases and accidents on board, many of the passengers never reached America.  Rough estimates sum up to 7,000 – 8,000 deceased, during the decade from 1830 – 1840.

Things started to improve by 1848, a sail ship, advertised that they had room for 20 passengers and 200 emigrants.  The cost for the passage was 80 Prussian face-value coins, which is equivalent to half of an average annual salary of a mason.  Despite several improvements, the conditions were still disastrous.

The emigrants still had to furnish their own mattresses and covers, had maybe 1 toilet for 50 people and not enough water for washing.

The change from sail ship to steam ship in the middle of the 19th century and the competitive pressure led to fundamental improvement: spacious accommodations in the between-deck with toilets, beds and washing facilities and the price did include ordinary but sufficient catering.

Things started to improve more as time went on, shipping lines started to offer mattresses and meals.  This did not always live up to what was advertised.  The time for making the trip was cut in half.

Starting at the end of the 19th century, luxury and safety found its way into traveling on ships, which were now steamships and, therefore, took less time to reach the “New World.”

Even for an emigration in the tweendecks, most families had to save for many years.  One trip cost about 30-40 Taler in the 1870s.  That was about 3 monthly salaries for a bricklayer.

By 1906, already 20% of the passengers could afford 1st or 2nd class accommodations.  Passage from Hamburg only took six to 10 days.  First class cost 400 Marks and 2nd class was 230 Marks.  A dockworker at this time made around 100 Marks a month.  There were smoking rooms and ladies’ rooms; games like shuffleboard were offered.  The space they had was not enormous in 2nd class, but a world apart from the emigrants in the between deck.

Between 1824 and 1924, fifty-two million left their homes in Europe.  71% went to North America, 21% to Latin America and 7% to Australia.


The award winning conception of the “BallinStadt” depicts emigration from 1850-1938.

Albert Ballin, the owner of HAPAG, the Hamburg American Line, was the youngest of 13 children, born in 1857 of a Danish – Jewish family.  His father founded Morris & Co., which was an emigration agency.  He died in 1874 and Albert took over the company at age 17.  By 1882, they already operated 17% of all emigrations to the USA via Hamburg.

Albert Ballin advanced the idea of the tween decks within passenger ships.  During WWI he felt his life going down the drain and 2 days before the end of the war, he committed suicide.

The HAPAG shipping company had originally built emigrants’ accommodation on America Quay in 1892, but conditions there were poor, and the facility soon proved too small to cope with the steadily growing influx of emigrants.  The new Emigration Halls were built on a 6-acre site provided by the City of Hamburg on the Elbe River’s Veddel Island and formally opened on December 20, 1901.

They comprised of 15 buildings: a reception hall, five sleeping and living quarters, two hotels, a dining hall, church, music hall, administration building and a basic hospital, as well as a luggage shed and a stable.

Only 3 years later, the facility had reached the limits of its capacity and required substantial extensions.  HAPAG therefore leased an additional 10.6 acres at a price of 12,000 marks per year and provided a further 1.5 acre free of charge for quarantine barracks.  They invested a total of around three million marks for the Emigration Halls referred to as “The World’s Biggest Inn.”

Most emigrants from Eastern Europe arrived on Veddel Island after a trip of several days, had to stop at control stations at the Prussian border or near Berlin very much exhausted and almost starved.

New arrivals had to go to the reception building to be registered and have their personal data recorded.  Each received a control card, stating which accommodation block they were assigned to and the card was also used as a meal ticket.

Following registration, which included the checking of travel documents, the travelers had to undergo a medical examination, after which they were required to take a bath or shower.  While all this was going on, their clothing and luggage would be disinfected. Luggage was stored in a luggage shed, carry-on luggage was allowed in the living quarters.

Men and women were assigned to separate sleeping quarters.  Wherever possible, people with similar backgrounds would be grouped together in separate halls to prevent possible conflict due to cultural or ethnic differences.  Russian emigrants were separate and kept in quarantine for five days and were not allowed to go into the city while waiting for passage.  1909 changed that situation.

The dining halls were arranged around the kitchens, Christian fare in one kitchen and Jewish in another under the watchful eye of a Senior Rabbi.  These were kept very clean.  They could cater up to 3,000 people within an hourly time frame.

Typical daily meal plan:

Breakfast: Tea and coffee, bread and butter

Midday meal: Soup, red meat or fish with potatoes and vegetables

Evening meal: Tea & bread accompanied by sausages, cheese goulash or ragout (stew)

Every morning between 10:30 and 11:00 the sounding of a trumpet would signal the start of the daily medical examinations.  The most common diagnosed condition was trachoma, a highly infectious disease of the eye.  If they were diagnosed with this, they could not enter the USA and had to be transported back home at the shipping line expense.

These halls were very modern with electricity and steam-powered boilers for heating.  The toilets were not flushing lavatories, because a lot of emigrants from less developed countries, (e.g. Russia) were not able to use them, since they were not used to such standards.

Each hall had its own day room and no one was allowed in the dormitories during the day.  They had single beds with one adult to a bed, but children had to sleep 2 to a bed.  There were two hotels to stay in, if you could afford them.

For a long time, Hamburg did not have a very good reputation with emigrants.  This was blamed on the emigration agents who promised to take care of all the travel arrangements, but mostly just took their money.  In 1850, things started to improve after Hamburg realized the economic profits to be made.

During this time, the accommodations were bad and private guesthouses were used and were not able to keep up with the steady flow of people.  Hamburg then had temporary housing built.

The medical exams that were required before getting on a ship, were held in small rooms where there was not only a doctor, but numerous officials, such as representatives of the US Embassy.  The doctor was only able to consider his or her appearance, pulse and tongue.

There are now three re-erected buildings of the former Emigration Halls on the Veddel Island.  Each building tells the story of the emigrants, bringing the history, people and destinies back to life.  There are 1,500 exhibits of historical sources, biographies and personal reports of emigrants on display.

The BallinStadt museum is the proud owner of a unique genealogical resource in terms of passenger lists from 1850-1934.  Containing names and personal data of over 5 million people who emigrated via Hamburg emigrant ships, it is the world’s largest source of such documents.  (A ship holding more than 25 emigrants was called an emigrant ship.)  The records survived two wars and 100 years of storage in the basement of Hamburg City Hall.  These are now all on Ancestry.

The lists contain surname, first name, sex, age, civil status, former residency, citizenship, profession and destination.  The former residence has only been listed in the Passenger lists of Hamburg and not in those from the countries of destination.

In the header of a Passenger list one can find the name of the vessel, the flag it sailed under, the date of departure as well as the captain’s name.

This past summer, Leo and I had the opportunity to visit this museum in Hamburg and were very impressed with what we saw.  Information for this article was taken from the book, Port of Dreams, BallinStadt.