Meet the Happy Burgenlanders from the SS Hansa

Passengers (and guests) from the SS Hansa

On January 1, 1923, The SS Hansa became the first trans-Atlantic liner of the year to dock in Manhattan. The ship carried about 1,500 passengers, including 400 immigrants. Most of the immigrants were from Burgenland, Austria.

Not listed on the ship manifest were the 1,800 bottles of alcoholic beverages hidden within the hold of the ship.

So Many VIsit Ship, Dry Men Investigate, Find Liquor Magnet - Article from 04 Jan 1923
Pittsburgh Daily Post, 04 Jan 1923, Thu, Page 5

Researching European ancestors usually starts with a search of old passenger lists. Often, you’ll find a ship manifest with some useful bits of information such as the name of a traveler’s closest relative or their village of origin.

Sometimes, the vessel named on the manifest will connect to an event of historical significance, or possibly the voyage may have been part of some newsworthy happening.

Occasionally, you may obtain a trifecta of genealogical artifacts — a ship manifest, newspaper articles about the voyage, and a photograph of passengers on the boat.

By sheer luck, I’ve stumbled across all three of these items pertaining to the voyage of the SS Hansa.

Though I wish I could say the happy people from the boat photo are relatives of mine, they are not. I discovered a page from the passenger manifest while researching for a friend. I later obtained the ship photo from Burgenland Bunch member and best-selling author, Michele Wucker, who we later learned is my friend’s 3rd cousin.

Note: If your family was from a village in Burgenland and you meet someone else whose family was from that same village, there’s a pretty good chance you’re related.

The S.S. Hansa
The SS Hansa, previously known as the SS Deutschland. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

After a tumultuous eleven-day journey through ocean storms, the liquor-laden Hansa docked in prohibition-era New York City. Instead of rushing off to their final destinations, many passengers lingered on the boat.

As was common practice, friends and family members arrived to greet the passengers and escort them to their new homes. However, many visitors to the SS Hansa chose to board the boat and stay a while.

It initially struck me as odd that these passengers would choose to remain on the ship after docking. Though 3rd-class accommodations were vastly better than they had been decades prior, surely living on the ship wasn’t a luxurious or joyful experience.

Steerage Passengers 1860s
Depiction of steerage passengers in the 1860s from Harper’s Weekly, March 27, 1869.

Or was it?

According to the The Marine Journal,

So rapid has been the recent progress of steamship companies in caring for third-class passengers that those who travel third-class these days fare as well as did the first-cabin travelers of but a few years ago. This is strikingly exemplified by the SS Hansa

In planning for the return of this vessel to service after the war, the Hamburg-American Line could not overlook the great demand for third-class passage and the inevitable popularity of the one-class steamer, or so-called “Ship of Democracy.”

Consequently, it was decided to convert the Hansa into a ship of this type. Except for cabins for about forty persons, all her former first- and second- class accommodations have been converted into rooms for two, four, six, and eight third-class passengers, of which there are now a total of 354.

The dining salons, social rooms, and other appointments, formerly considered luxurious by first-class passengers, are now a part of the third-class accommodations.1

It seems the “Ship of Democracy” was a pretty nice way to travel.  Below is a photo of the 3rd-class dining hall on the Hansa, taken in 1921.

Third-class dining room, SS Hansa
Image source: The Marine Journal, Volume 44, 3 Dec 1921

To justify the higher fare, first-class passengers were provided even more opulent accommodations than their 3rd-class neighbors. With a few exceptions, the upper-class passengers still had a more comfortable trip.

One of these exceptions occurred soon after the SS Hansa left Hamburg on December 21, 1922.  Crashing waves infiltrated the top levels of the ship, and within moments, water poured into the first-class dining hall and flooded many of the luxury state rooms.

The steerage quarters … were not affected by the flood above them.2

Waves Smash into Cabins on Big Liner SS Hansa
The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jan 02, 1923 · Page 2

While the wealthy travelers stood knee-deep in sea water, scrambling for buckets and mops, the Burgenlanders below remained untouched by the flooding. The Austrians may not have noticed the panic erupting just a floor above them.

Maybe the steerage passengers were having an early New Year’s celebration?

I imagine they may have looked something like these people in the completely unrelated image below (but this is pure speculation).

Immigrants Dancing and Booze
Image Source: The Molly Brown House Museum

We’re not exactly sure what happened on the SS Hansa, but we do know the names of a few hundred Austrian-Hungarian immigrants who were on board. Most of these passengers were from the Güssing and Jennersdorf districts.

View the complete passenger list here at the Liberty Ellis Foundation website. (The site requires users to register for a free account before viewing images.)

Do you see any of your ancestors names on the list?

Do any of the people in the photo look familiar?

A few of the young women have been identified, but the men in the photo are still a mystery. If you have any idea who they are, please let me know.

Better yet, if you know who stashed the booze, I’d love to hear all about it.

  1. “A Ship of Democracy,” Marine Journal, Volume 44, 3 Dec 1921, page 19
  2. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jan 02, 1923 · Page 2

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