Immigrants on the Titanic

With so many discussions of immigration at the forefront of today’s news, let’s take a look at the immigrants who boarded the Titanic. What were the immigration requirements in 1912? What happened to the immigrants who managed to survive the disaster, and how were they treated upon their arrival in New York? Between the 1880s and the 1920s, the United States experienced a great wave of immigrants pouring into the country. Between 1880 and 1900, 9 million immigrants arrived by ship in New York City. To accommodate such a large number, a new processing station was built on Ellis Island in 1892. In 1907, one million immigrants came through Ellis Island, the most in any one-year period.


Immigration processing at Ellis Island

Not every would-be immigrant was admitted to the United States. Some were sent back to their homelands if they had certain illnesses or infirmities. Others were sent to the Ellis Island hospital, or were detained while a relative recovered or until a relative or friend already living in the United States could claim them.

Each person received a brief physical examination on arrival, including a check for trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection. He or she was asked several questions regarding destination, plans for employment, and health. They were questioned whether they had ever been in a poorhouse, an asylum, or had ever had a serious illness. The main goal for federal authorities was to determine if the person could work or would otherwise become a burden to society. Men were also asked if they were polygamists. The wrong answer to any of these questions could prevent the person from entering the country.


Ellis Island arrivals examined for trachoma

Before air travel, shipping companies profited from the millions of people who wished to start new lives in America. The majority of passengers on trans-Atlantic voyages were immigrants. Many liners were overcrowded and unsanitary. The White Star Line operated several larger ships, and advertised their size and comfort. Their new Olympic class ships, Oceanic (1911), Titanic (1912), and Britannic (1914) would be the safest ships afloat and the most luxurious, even for those traveling in steerage.

On Titanic’s first and only voyage in April 1912, steerage passengers made up over half the number of passengers on the ship, and most were immigrants. White Star Line, as all the shipping companies did at the time, cooperated with the US immigration laws by screening immigrants prior to the voyage. Their names, ages, and destinations were documented on the passenger manifest.


Passengers waiting to board Titanic in Queenstown, Ireland

When the Titanic sank, over three-quarters of the 709 third-class passengers were killed. The passenger manifest was also lost. Aboard the Carpathia following rescue, the crew assembled a new manifest of the survivors. In New York, federal immigration officers waived the usual examinations for the immigrant survivors. When the Carpathia arrived, the stop at Ellis Island was suspended, and the new immigrants from the Titanic were sent to hospitals or immigrant hostels. Their paperwork was processed later.


Crowd waiting to greet survivors in New York

Not all surviving immigrants from the Titanic remained in the United States. Although none were rejected by immigration officials, the disaster changed their lives. With many of their loved ones lost in the sinking, some immigrants soon chose to return to their place of birth. Others settled in America, determined to continue with their plans.

In my next post, we’ll visit 18-year-old passenger Anna Turja from Finland, who did just that.

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The Unsinkable Charles Lightoller

When Titanic’s Second Officer Charles Lightoller knew the ship was sinking, he wasted no time in asking Captain Smith for orders to fill the lifeboats. He’d seen plenty of trouble at sea before. Working aboard ships since the age of thirteen, he’d already survived one shipwreck, a shipboard fire, and a cyclone, all by the time he’d turned twenty-one.


In his early twenties, “Lights” Lightoller had been working aboard a steamship on the West African coast when he nearly died from malaria. He took a break from his life at sea and went prospecting for gold in the Yukon, became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada, traveled as a hobo by train across Canada, and found a job on a cattle boat back home to England. The call of the sea won out, and he studied to become a ship’s officer. Joining the White Star Line at age twenty-six, he met a passenger on a voyage to Australia. She became his bride on the return trip.

Under the command of Captain Edward Smith who later would captain the Titanic, Lightoller held the Fourth Officer’s position aboard the Majestic for some time. He was then promoted to Third Officer on the Oceanic, Titanic’s sister ship. When preparations were underway for Titanic’s maiden voyage, “Lights” was originally set to be its First Officer. But Captain Smith brought on another officer from the Oceanic as his Chief Officer, shifting all the other officers’ positions. Lightoller was forced to accept the role of Second Officer, while the original man in that position had to drop out.

Lightoller with Smith

Charles Lightoller, second from left, with Titanic officers. Captain Smith on far right.

On the night of April 14, 1912, Charles Lightoller noticed the abrupt drop in temperature, even though the winds and waves were calm. During his evening duties, he alerted those in the crow’s nest to watch for small ice. Ships in the area had sent repeated ice warnings during the afternoon, but not all of them reached the bridge, preventing the officers from knowing the full extent of the warnings.

After completing his rounds, Lightoller went to his cabin. As he fell asleep, a grinding sensation awakened him. He ran to the deck in his pajamas to investigate. Within minutes, he was informed that water was rapidly filling the mail room. He returned to his cabin to grab his uniform coat and was soon directing crewmembers in the launch of the boats.

When all lifeboats had been lowered and three of the four collapsible boats had been launched, Charles Lightoller climbed onto the overturned Collapsible B as the Boat Deck went underwater. Hours later, he made sure all passengers from every lifeboat and the sinking Collapsible B were on board the rescue ship Carpathia before climbing the ship’s rope ladder to safety.

titanic news headline

As the highest ranking officer to survive, Lightoller testified at the American inquiry. He staunchly defended the actions of Titanic’s crew, including that of Captain Smith. He returned to sea the following year as First Officer on the Oceanic. With the start of World War I, the Oceanic became an armed merchant cruiser and Lightoller became a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. When it ran aground, he again supervised the filling of lifeboats. He was then given command of a torpedo boat which collided with a trawler and sank, exactly six years, nearly to the minute, after the Titanic sinking.

At war’s end, Lightoller left the Royal Navy as full Commander and returned to White Star for several years. Then during World War II, the sixty-six-year-old helped rescue 130 soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk using his own yacht. He lost two sons in the war.

“Lights” went on to run a boatyard and build motor launches for the London River Police in his 70s. He died in 1952, at the age of 78.