Thursday: New York, New York

For passengers, it was the end of the journey. Some passengers crossed only once making 'the trip of a lifetime'. For crew, it was time to make the liner ready for the next crossing of the 'Atlantic Ferry', although there was often time for some shopping and sightseeing ashore. New York was the world's most popular port for crew to desert by 'jumping ship'.

The mood on the liner changed on the last morning at sea. The Gala Dinner and farewell cabin parties were over. There was last minute packing to do and mail and telegrams to be sent. Stewards were waiting discreetly for their tip. Suddenly passengers remembered that their crossing had an end and a purpose. It was time to say goodbye to the 'small town at sea.'

Arriving at New York

Arriving at New York © University of Liverpool

Entering New York harbour

Passing the Ambrose Lightship was the sign that the crossing was nearly over; only another twenty miles to Pier 90. Passengers lined the railings for their first sight of land, the coastline of Long Island. The ship dropped speed and picked up a pilot at Sandy Hook at the entrance to the Ambrose Channel. As it entered New York Harbour it hooted a greeting.

For some passengers, the Manhattan skyline was an old friend. Others marvelled at its drama for the first time. As in Liverpool, liners sailed into the very heart of the city. The skyscrapers looked like a giant sea wall. A 'skyscraper' was originally the term used for the highest sail on the mast of a sailing ship. Disembarking passengers faced a number of challenges before they were free to enter the city.

First and second class passengers were cleared through immigration as the liner sailed into New York Harbour. Until 1954 third class passengers faced one last journey - a ferry to Ellis Island beside the Statue of Liberty. There they were questioned by doctors and immigration officials to check that they were 'fit to enter'. Around 2% were sent back home. The rest met up with relatives at the Kissing Gate before catching the ferry back to Manhattan.

The US Customs Service was famous as being the toughest in the world. After disembarking, passengers stood by their luggage in the Customs Hall for inspection. Little escaped the eagle eye of the Customs men.

Once on land, passengers faced the twin hazards of dishonest porters and taxi cab drivers who overcharged. Luggage was regularly 'lost' so that the porters would be tipped twice, once for finding it and once for carrying it. In the 1930s and 1940s the rackets of the Manhattan waterfront, controlled by four master criminals, were legendary.

‘Vultures’ watched passengers closely as they disembarked in the 1950s. These unscrupulous lawyers were on the lookout for passengers with a limp or wearing a bandage. They volunteered to sue the shipping line for injuries suffered on board, splitting any costs awarded 50/50 with the passenger. An officer on the Mauretania II managed to avert one law suit when he remembered that the lady claiming to have broken her ankle on board had in fact embarked with her leg in plaster.

During Prohibition (1920-1933) alcohol was illegal in the United States. Passengers tried every trick in the book to smuggle in a few bottles. The crew were often recruited to help in return for a handsome tip.

Breaking news

Gangplank Willies was the nickname given to news-hungry New York reporters. Reporters and photographers often boarded the liners at Quarantine for the eight mile sail into dock. Cunard and White Star tipped them off as to any famous passengers on board.

In order to be first with the news of the Titanic disaster in 1912, the New York Times hired a tug to take reporters out to the Carpathia to interview the survivors. Captain Rostron refused to let them board. The tug broke down and the seasick reporters reached New York hours after rival newspapers had broken the story.

Purser McCubbin of the Lusitania entertained the Gangplank Willies to breakfast and Cunard whisky in his cabin. He sent bellboys to fetch millionaires or those involved in the latest divorce scandals, for interview. McCubbin went down with Lusitania when she was torpedoed in 1915 on his last crossing before retirement.


Listen to the crew's reactions to New York as they take their shore leave.

Read a transcript of the audio clip