The journey

PART 2 of 3

In a previous installment, paternal grandfather Fazio Paolini had announced to his mother and family his plans to travel to America. In this chapter, I will attempt to recreate that journey in as much detail as possible, beginning in Cepagatti, Italy, and arriving in New York.

EARLY MAY 1897. Fazio and Domenico Paolini have said goodbye to their respective families. Perhaps there had been some family dinner or tearful farewell party the night before.

Railroads in Italy in 1897 would have provided Fazio Paolini a fairly easy trip from Cepagatti to Napoli, where he could board a steamship for America.

Fazio and Domenico needed to travel from their tiny village on the eastern side of Italy, along the Adriatic Coast. They had to traverse the Apennines mountain range to arrive in Napoli on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was there they would board the S/S California for the voyage across the Atlantic.

The overland journey today by car is a mere 3-hour drive (169 miles or 282 kilometers). But in the 1890s, automobiles and paved roads were at best a novelty. So, it is more than likely that Fazio and Domenico took a rather circuitous route by train.

Maps of the railway infrastructure at the time show a robust network. But there was no direct path over the mountains. Chances are good that they took the route outlined here. This was likely a one-day trip. But then there would have been traveling to and from the train stations — either on foot or by carriage — to reach the port of Naples (Napoli). My guess is that it took them two and possibly three days before they were able to board the ship.

Napoli must have been exciting enough for the two “country” boys. At the turn of the 20th Century, the metropolitan region ranked as the third-largest in the new Kingdom of Italy.

Naples (Napoli) Italy was one of the largest metropolitan areas in Italy at the turn of the 19th Century.

Once at the port, the passengers had to plunk down $30 for passage. This would be the equivalent of just under $1,000 today. They also needed to provide a passport, the name of a friend or relative in the new country, and proof they possessed an additional $25 to financially support themselves upon arrival in their new homeland. But they were not done yet. They had to answer 31 questions. Ex-convicts and those interested in arson or polygamy need not apply. Then they were examined by a ship doctor. Vaccines for cholera, typhoid, tetanus and bubonic plague were new then but may have been administered.

If they met the requirements, the passengers were allowed to board, climbing the gangplank to the main deck and then descending a set of stairs, past the labyrinth of engines, boilers, and machinery to find a spot in steerage.

Life in steerage was communal living with very little privacy in the late 1800s. Travelers were provided a sleeping berth, three meals (of questionable nutritional value) a day and they had the use of public restrooms. But in most cases water for washing was saltwater. Drinking water was rationed. Newer ships had electric lighting. The S/S California, on which Fazio Paolini traveled, did not.
Harper’s Weekly Supplement, 22 November 1890

By now, the engines1 of the S/S California would have been rumbling, as workers with titles such as coal trimmers, firemen, stokers, and water tenders endured the back-breaking labor required to power the vessel, all performed in a soot-choked environment.

In the ship’s manifest, Fazio and Domenico are listed as being housed in “No. 1 MDSF.” There is also a “No. 2 MDSA.” I could find no definition for the acronyms. My best guess is mid-ship fore and mid-ship aft.

Although the S/S California could accommodate 150 first (or saloon) class, 80 second, and 700 third class,2 the ship’s manifest for this trip lists only 730 passengers without distinguishing their type of service. My guess, since virtually all the surnames listed are of Italian descent, is that the vast majority of these were steerage class.3

The S/S California ship manifest for May 20, 1897, including Fazio Paolini (No. 7) and Domenico Paolini (No. 9).

Once settled into their new home for the next few weeks, the passengers would no doubt have been excited and perhaps marveled at the thrill of traveling on a steamship. The boat likely made a stop at Palermo, Sicily, and possibly Gilbraltar, Spain. Relying on the ship’s manifest, I see only Italian surnames but none of Iberian origin.4

From there it was through the Strait of Gibraltar and out into the wide and often turbulent Atlantic Ocean.

It appears, based on weather reports from various newspapers on both sides of “The Pond,” that the weather was fortuitously uneventful in May 1897. There might have been some high winds when the S/S California departed Naples. Otherwise, it appears the barometric pressure was high5 for the Atlantic crossing, according to The Times of London, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe, indicating no storms. There were reports of an “anti-cyclone in Ireland” (a fancy term for a high-pressure system) and a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Temperatures were unseasonably chilly, with frost in parts of France and England. But that was about it.

A cutaway of the S/S Frisia, displays the fore and aft steerage compartments. The ship was launched the same year (1872) as the S/S California on which Fazio Paolini traveled. Both are very similar in design, as hybrid sailing/steam-powered vessels. And both had iron hulls. By the 1890s, steel was the prevalent material.

Still, for those unaccustomed to traveling by sea, the ride must have been quite bumpy and nauseating. Waves of 2 meters (6 feet) would not be uncommon in the open ocean, and swells much higher would certainly have been encountered. This would have given a boat the size of the S/S California quite a bouncing about.

By 1897, the Golden Age of steamship travel was well underway. But, as routine as traversing the seas was by this time, the voyage was not without its perils. There were icebergs, of course, which could be seen as far south as Bermuda. The fog was always a challenge. And, although the Atlantic is a big place (41 million square miles), it was becoming quite crowded with vessels.6 This was the era before radar and other modern collision-avoidance systems. Even wireless telegraph was not yet available.

As dangerous as the open sea might be, it was the shores and harbors that were of most concern. Sand barges, rocks, shoals, or other ships in relatively close proximity all created challenges. The Utopia, for instance, collided with another ship in 1891 near the port of Gibraltar, costing 591 Italians their lives.

And when the steamers weren’t colliding with one another or other natural obstacles, there were boiler explosions, fires, and leaks to contend with. There were, by my count, 228 maritime accidents in the year 1897 alone.

Unimaginable living conditions

Those were not the only dangers lurking about. Inside the ship, in the congested, the infested, the dark, and nearly airless world of steerage, other hazards lurked.

Although, as previously noted, there were vaccines available and likely administered for cholera, typhoid, tetanus, and bubonic plague, there were many other contagions all too prevalent and easily transmissible in this type of environment. They included: tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza, pertussis, yellow fever, polio, measles, and mumps, to name a few.

Life in Steerage During Heavy Weather. The Century Magazine, February 1898.

Death was a common enough event that the ship’s manifest included a column to register any passengers who might have died on board.

Children and babies were especially vulnerable. The passenger-ship mortality rate for children between the ages of 1 and 12 was 7.5%, and for infants, 19%. This was after the enactment of several U.S. laws, starting in 1872. Before this, the overall mortality rate for all passengers was even higher.

Ship doctors were, by most accounts, unqualified and unable to address the infirmed with any measure of success.

‘This has been a sad day, we have had 5 deaths, all children, the people seem to think it is a doomed Ship & have lost all heart …”

Passenger aboard the Steamship Contarf

Conditions in steerage remained vile at best well into the 20th Century. Inadequate ventilation, substandard (and often unusable) bathrooms, lack of lighting, virtually no privacy, and inedible food are among the myriad violations cited during ship inspections. Rats, cockroaches, ticks, and lice ran rampant. Many passengers were seasick for most of the trip. The odors of rotting food, body odors, and engine fumes made it nearly impossible to breathe. And by most accounts, the companies running these vessels looked the other way.

In 1912, the British steamer Orteric was fined $7,960 for its abusive treatment of steerage passengers. The report detailed the following:

Among her 1,242 passengers, there were in the eight weeks of her voyage 58 deaths, 57 being children; the births numbered 14; the sexes were not properly segregated during the larger part of the time, the ventilation of the ship was inadequate and greatly increased the mortality rate; the hospital facilities were ill-ventilated and without proper equipment; while the sanitary conditions of the vessel were almost beyond belief.

U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor report
Immigrant women in their sleeping bunk. They are using life preservers for pillows. Leslie’s Monthly Magazine, May 1904.

On top of all this, women and girls faced not only routine harassment but sexual assaults. A report to the U.S. Senate in 1909 notes just how appalling conditions were, leaving little to the imagination.

And in those incredibly inhumane conditions, there was the overwhelming boredom. Passengers might try to pass the time by playing cards, talking about their plans in the new land, or even singing and dancing. There were at least 2 musicians on board the S/S California for this voyage; perhaps they helped provide some entertainment.

And so, after two or three (or more) weeks of these unbearable conditions, it is not hard to imagine the overwhelming feeling of relief that must have been felt upon first sighting land again.

And you can imagine the thrill when they spotted the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to their new home.



1 The ship, built in 1872, had its engines overhauled in 1881.

2 The ship was later modified to accommodate up to 1,200 steerage class passengers, but as noted, the total number of passengers on this trip was 730 in all classes.

3 [North Atlantic Seaway by N.R.P.Bonsor, vol.1, p.457]

4 My father, Claude Albert Paolini, claimed that Italian surnames ending in “i” were from Northern Italy, and those with “o” from the south, especially Sicily. I have only recently uncovered corroboration of his theory.

5 Barometric pressure readings in Rome (just north of Napoli), London, Paris, and New York during this timeframe were between 29.9 and 30.1. These are normal “high pressure” readings and indicate little chance for a storm.

6 Among the ship companies transporting emigrants were:

Allan Line, American Line, Anchor Line, Beaver Line, Canadian Pacific Line, Cunard Line, Dominion Line, Guion Line, Hamburg America Line, Holland America Line,  Inman Line, Kroneline, Monarch Line, Norwegian America Line, National Line, Norddeutscher Lloyd, Red Star Line, Ruger’s American Line, Scandia Line, Scandinavian America Line, State Line – Swedish America Line, Temperley Line, Norwegian American S.S. Co., Thingvalla Line, White Star Line, Wilson Line.

In addition, there would have been military ships, cargo ships, cruise lines, and fishing vessels of various types, all plying the waters.

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