From 1873 until the mid-1930s the ships of the Red Star Line set out from Antwerp - calling at the British ports of Liverpool and Southampton en route - on voyages across the Atlantic to New York. Down through the decades more than two million people took this journey, many heading for the famous immigration centre at Ellis Island and the promise of a new life in North America.
On September 28 a new museum will open in the former quayside buildings of the Red Star Line by the River Scheldt in Antwerp. The exhibitions housed here will tell the story of those immigrants who made their way across the seas in the company’s vessels. It is a story of one of the most important waves of migration in human history, a story that unites both Europe and the United States.
About the Red Star Line
The Red Star Line was founded as a joint venture between American and Belgian businessmen with the aim of exporting crude oil from the ports of Philadelphia and New York to Europe, but it was the cargo carried on the return voyages - migrants leaving Europe for the New World - that has guaranteed the company an enduring place in history.
In the 19th century restrictions on emigration were eased in Europe, and the exodus of people seeking a new life overseas reached its peak between 1880 and 1914 when the emergence of the steamship meant journey times were reduced significantly. Antwerp faced stiff competition from other ports in Europe but by the early 20th century around 100,000 migrants sailed from the Belgian port every year, with two Red Star Line ships sailing for America each week.
Conditions on board the vessels sailing to America were a clear echo of the stark social divisions that held sway across Europe at the time. While those travelling first class enjoyed the voyage in surroundings akin to a luxury hotel, those below decks travelled in cramped, crowded conditions. But the era of mass movement of people from Europe to America was to come to an end. In 1921 US lawmakers passed legislation limiting the number of people allowed to settle in America - effectively calling time on the Red Star Line’s central role in the history of two continents.
About the new museum in Antwerp
The old warehouses of the Red Star Line still stand close to the waters of the Scheldt, from where so many set out on their journey into the unknown. And now, thanks to the work of teams of academics from both Belgium and the United States, they will come to life once again to remember the stories of the millions who passed through Antwerp on their way to a new life in across the Atlantic. The slogan for the museum is ‘People on the Move’ and the aim is to show how people from across Europe travelled through Antwerp and look at the impact their migration had once they settled in America.
On display at the museum will be paintings, photographs and other artefacts that help illustrate the story of migration and the Red Star Line in Antwerp. The history and story of the Red Star Line is told through eight specific settings laid out over two floors: a travel agency in Warsaw, the interior of a train carriage, the city of Antwerp, the Red Star Line building, the deck of an ocean steamer, on board the ship, the arrival on Ellis Island and the new future in the United States.
The buildings themselves are also an important part of the story because it was here that the would-be travellers would have their dreams of escape from Europe, often from poverty and persecution, realised or destroyed. Papers would be checked and medical examinations carried out, but if you failed to pass this stage then you would not be allowed to board the ships for America and you would face the prospect of returning home.
A museum spokesman said: “The Red Star Line Museum tells the story of the millions of Europeans who dared to leave everything behind in search of happiness and a better life. It is a tale of high expectations and deep disappointments, of hope and sleepless nights. The shipping company’s old buildings make all these emotions and stories tangible and visible.”
Antwerp is located in the north of Belgium close to the border with the Netherlands. It is easily reached by car if you take the ferry to France from the Port of Dover, being about two and a half hours from the port at Calais by road.
MyFerryLink offers up to 16 sailing between Dover and Calais every day and you can book your crossing from £30 one way by visiting our booking page on the website or by calling 0844 2482 100.
The Red Star Line Museum is located on Montevideostraat in Antwerp and opens to the public on September 28. It is open Tuesday to Sunday, between 10am and 5pm on weekdays and 10am and 6pm at the weekend, and entry costs €8.
You can find out more about visiting the exhibition on the Red Star Line Museum website.
(Picture credits: Michel Wuyts and Noortje Palmers)