Holland America Line’s Rotterdam pulled into the Port of Manhattan early in the morning on October 26, retracing an inaugural journey from Rotterdam, Netherlands that the cruise line took in 1872. A century and a half ago, the ship carried just 70 passengers, most of whom were bound for a new life in the United States.
Rotterdam, which debuted earlier this year, is now the seventh ship to bear the Rotterdam name. During its 150-year history, Holland America Line’s fleet has transitioned from Dutch ocean liners to an international consumer cruise company. Its ships carried 10 percent of all passengers who crossed the Atlantic from Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; this includes 2 million immigrants traveling in steerage who passed through New York’s famed Ellis Island.
“I met a couple onboard this trip who told me that their grandparents came from Europe on Holland America Line and when they arrived in New York, they bent down and kissed the ground,” recounted cruise historian Bill Miller. “Holland America is the great bridge, and I am deeply proud to be a part, in a small way, of this celebration and this wonderful company.”
Miller and Lean speaking onboard. Photo: Brittany Chrusciel
At an event onboard Rotterdam in New York, Mark Levine, the president of the borough of Manhattan, presented a proclamation naming October 26, 2022 to be Holland America Line Appreciation Day and applauded the company’s significant role in the immigrant experience in New York City.
“It is rare and it is a privilege to lead a company that has been around for 150 years; it is a responsibility that I do not take lightly,” Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line, told the audience during the anniversary kickoff event. “Anniversaries are a great time to reminisce, but it’s even more important for us to think about the next 150 years and how we intend to stay relevant for generations to come.
“One of the hallmarks of our company is resilience. There have been a lot of ups and downs during the past 150 years — we survived wars, a depression, the development of transatlantic flight and the recent pandemic — and we continue to learn from every challenge to adapt, to improve and ultimately to thrive. We’ve been successful because we put people at the heart of everything we do; people are what it’s all about and they have been from the start.”
To mark the cruise line’s impact on Ellis Island, Holland America has partnered with The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation with a curated exhibit available to visitors from February through April 2023 that recounts the history of immigration to America aboard Holland America ships. The exhibit will also feature models of the line’s earliest ships made in part by Rotterdam’s Captain Werner Timmers.
At its peak, Ellis Island could welcome 10 steamships and process about 5,000 people each day — with pen and paper. Beyond preserving the national landmarks of the State of Liberty and Ellis Island, the mission of the onsite American Family Immigration History Center “goes beyond that,” according to its director, Stephen Lean. “We’re protecting, preserving, remembering and celebrating the stories of the people who were present on Ellis Island.”
Notable Holland America passengers include Albert Einstein who sailed in 1921 aboard the Rotterdam IV; Ralph Baer who immigrated with his parents in 1938 aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam and became an engineer known for pioneering interactive video games; and renowned puppeteer Frank Oz who sailed in 1950 aboard the Veendam and is best known for developing “The Muppets.”
“All of our lives are made better by stories such as this…from a better understanding of how the physical world works; from videogames to the voices of some of the most beloved characters to tens of millions of children around the world, these stories are worth celebrating,” Lean said. “There is an immigrant story behind all of these facets of everyday life that we sometimes take for granted. And written in that immigrant story for these and millions of others is a chapter that took place on a Holland America Line vessel.”