Like grains from an over-filled feedbag, people spilled from the open decks to the steerage area below. Cramped rows of metal-framed bunkbeds filled the ship’s hold. Bottom bunks went first, claimed by mothers with small children.
Rosalia stood on her trunk and cautiously climbed to an upper bunk. Even in dock the rocking of the ship made balancing precarious to the young woman who had never in her life spent time on water.
Leaving the harbor for the trip north on the Elbe River to the North Sea was exciting…for the first few hours. But the first night in cramped, airless quarters let Rosalia and the other 1200+ emigrants know why passage via steerage could be had for $30.
The open deck space reserved for steerage passengers was very limited and what little was available was situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion. It was impossible to escape dirt from the stacks and odors from the hold and galleys. The only provisions for eating were shelves or benches along the sides or in the passages between bunk beds. As many as could, ate on deck. Toilets and washrooms were completely inadequate; only saltwater was available.
By day six, conditions were so bad that Rosalia wasn’t the only one who braved slippery steps from below-decks to the small section of the main deck on which they were allowed. Those who weren’t already seasick were grateful when the ship’s captain killed the engines to to allow high seas to wash the deck…and their bodies. Even crusty, salt-washed skin felt better than the week-old build-up of sweat and grime. Rosalia composed letters in her head to Helena back home:
“I hate this trip. The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. There is no way to clean the vomit of the seasick. I am surrounded by the odors of not too clean bodies and the reek of rotting food.The awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms makes the atmosphere in steerage so bad that it is a marvel that humans can endure it. Most of us lie for hours in our berths. It is impossible to keep one’s body clean. And all of this is made worse by the crowding.”
But she knew she could never send such a letter. She was torn between letting family back home know what the trip was like and letting them believe that her new life was wonderful, even magical.