The piers on the city's southern waterfront are part of a too-often forgotten history. In a new exhibit, the Hoboken Historical Museum hopes to shine a light on the exciting era in which massive ocean liners and steamships brought immigrants and goods to Hoboken.
The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 1, is called "Destination Hoboken: The Great Ocean Liners of the Hamburg-American and North German Lloyd." The exhibit explores the history of two trans-Atlantic shipping companies that owned docks in Hoboken from the mid-19th century until the United States entered the first World War.
"Many people forget that at one point the largest vessels in the world came to Hoboken loaded with a tremendous number of immigrants," said special guest curator and Hoboken resident Ken Schultz. Schultz is an antique dealer who specializes in ocean-related memorabilia and donated many of the items seen in the show. "It truly was one of the world's great ports and was the equal to any in New York."
Built by the Germans in the early 1800s, the piers were home to the German tall ships and later in the century gave way to German Steamers. The town at that time was a mixture of the German shiphands and Italian immigrants who used Hoboken as a point of entry to America. The Hamburg-American Line, founded in 1847, and the North German Lloyd Line, founded in 1858, have played an important role in the history of the city and even more importantly, the history of immigration in the U.S.
According to Bob Foster, the museum's director, Destination Hoboken considers social, political, and technological changes in Europe and America during the 19th and 20th centuries that contributed to the growth of these two German ocean liner companies.
The exhibit, which has over 200 items, has an elaborate display that focuses on the Great Hoboken Pier Fire of 1900. On a Saturday afternoon in June of that year, the German steamer docks burned in a massive fire when several bales of cotton waiting to be loaded on the North German Lloyd's Pier 2 in Hoboken somehow ignited. Italian residents grabbed handfuls of their possessions to the rattling of fire trucks and the distant screams of Germans trapped aboard the fire-laden liners. Most of the sailors who were trapped in the ships burned to death or were drowned by the rising tide.
The Germans rebuilt the piers by 1906 and the deep-water port became home to some of the world's largest most luxurious liners and to the flagship of Imperial Germany. In 1917, just nine days after the outbreak of war, the U.S. seized control of the German-owned pier and the idle fleet that was there. Included in the bounty was the world's largest ship, the Vaterland, which would later be renamed the Leviathan.
During the war, the area was the port of embarkation for the war effort and gave rise to the popular wartime saying, "Heaven, Hell or Hoboken," which was where troops expected to be by Christmas.
During this time, there were 237 Hoboken saloons that hosted a budding culture of pier guards and troopship crews with several of the German ships serving as solider transports. The Leviathan transported more than 100,000 US troops to France. After the war, the ship was renovated at a cost of $8,000,000 and returned to the ranks of a luxury liner. Then, in 1938, the ship was sold to Japan for scrap iron.
The museum will also host five illustrated lectures by noted scholars to compliment the exhibit:
- Friday August 2, 7 p.m.: "The Imperial Fleets," guest curator Ken Schultz will provide a slide talk on the Imperial Fleets, noting the forces behind the technological innovations and lavish style of the German liners.
- Sunday, August 4, 4 p.m.: "German-Americans in Hudson County," Edward Fleckenstein, a local history scholar.
- Thursday, August 29, 7 p.m.: "The Only Way to Cross," noted maritime historian and author John Maxtone-Graham will present an illustrated talk about the life aboard a variety of ships that called at Hoboken.
- Friday, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.: "Destination Hoboken," ocean liner historian and author William H. Miller.
- Sunday, Sept. 15, 4 p.m.: "Life on Board," nautical historian and bookseller Charles Dragonette.
All lectures are held at the Hoboken Historical Museum, 1301 Hudson St. Seating is limited.
Destination Hoboken was assisted by a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of Cultural Affairs in the Department of State. Additional support was provided by Hapag-Lloyd Container Line. The museum's hours are Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays. For more information on the exhibit call (201) 656-2240.