Red Star Line Museum Opens In Antwerp

A new museum dedicated to the often overlooked Red Star Line and the immigrants  that came to America aboard their ships, has opened in Antwerp, Belgium.   After years of planning, the Red Star Line Museum officially opened to the public on September 28, 2013.  It is housed in three historic buildings associated with the Red Star Line along the waterfront, and one newly constructed tower.  The oldest of the historic buildings was built in 1894, while the main building was constructed post World War I, circa 1922.  An adjacent building called The Shed was used as a customs area for baggage, and dates to the years prior to the first World War.

Four similar ships, the VADERLAND, ZEELAND, KROONLAND and FINLAND were all built between 1900 and 1902.  The first pair came from John Brown & Company, Clydebank while the latter two were constructed by William Cramp & Sons in the U.S.A.  Each pair was eventually transferred to the White Star Line and the American Line respectively.
Four similar ships, the VADERLAND, ZEELAND, KROONLAND and FINLAND were all built between 1900 and 1902. The first pair came from John Brown & Company, Clydebank while the latter two were constructed by William Cramp & Sons in the U.S.A. Each pair was eventually transferred to the White Star Line and the American Line respectively.

The Red Star Line was an important trans-Atlantic shipping line with a very muddled history that frequently mixes with better known companies like White Star Line, Cunard Line, Atlantic Transport and especially the American Line.  Their first voyage was with the 2,748 gross ton VADERLAND which commenced on January 19, 1873.  Many other ships were to follow, most of which utilized the suffix LAND in their names.  All told, 14 ships were completed specifically for the company between 1873 and 1923.  Another 10 were purchased from other lines.  Another 29 were operated under charter, some for as short as a month and others for as long as nine years.

The second WESTERNLAND was built in 1917 for the White Star Line and joined the Red Star Line in 1930.
The second WESTERNLAND was built in 1917 for the White Star Line and joined the Red Star Line in 1930.

While the museum tells the history of the Red Star Line and it’s ships, it also largely concentrates on the story of the people who sailed in those vessels.  An estimated 2 million passengers crossed from Europe to America on the Red Star Line from 1873 up until 1934.  Most, but not all of these passengers were immigrants.  In 1893, a young passenger named Isidore Baline fled violence in Russia along with his family.  That five-year old child later took the name Irving Berlin and became one of America’s greatest songwriters.  Another famous name sailed aboard the BELGENLAND in 1933.  Albert Einstein crossed on the ship but with the rise of Nazi power directly affecting him he decided not to return to Berlin.

The second, 27,200 gross ton BELGENLAND was the largest and most prestigious ship for the line.  Although laid down at Harland & Wolff prior to World War I, it did not join Red Star until April 4, 1923.
The second, 27,200 gross ton BELGENLAND was the largest and most prestigious ship for the line. Although laid down at Harland & Wolff prior to World War I, it did not join Red Star until April 4, 1923.

The convoluted history of the Red Star Line is certainly worth checking out for fans of passenger liners and those whose families immigrated from Northern European countries through Belgium.  The ship models and interactive exhibits tell part of the story.  But as the museum itself likes to say, “The most important items in the collection: the buildings.”  The original Red Star Line buildings on the Rijnkaai make the stories and emotions of the passengers that passed through them come to life in a tangible and visible experience, that is possible in few other places.  So much of the actual brick and mortar elements from the historic steamship era have been lost, but here it tells the story in the original location where that history actually happened.

Aboard the BELGENLAND, the Captain (possibly William A. Morehouse) poses with Albert Einstein.
Aboard the BELGENLAND, the Captain (possibly William A. Morehouse) poses with Albert Einstein.

RED STAR LINE MUSEUM website (English language version)  www.redstarline.be/en

Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake
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