Here the journey began for thousands of hopeful Norwegians. They were about to travel with Amerikalinjen to the land of opportunity. The Norwegian America Line’s venerable headquarters opened its doors in 1919. One hundred years later, we breathe new life in to these dreams.
The American dream
Letters from the Norwegian settlers in America were sent back with the ships across the Atlantic. From Norwegian ports, the post bags were distributed throughout the country, from Hammerfest in the north to Lista in the south. In the countryside and in the urban areas, relatives gathered at the end of the working day. By the dim light of candles and kerosene lamps the letters were opened and read. Often many times. Tales of gold, endless cornfields and personal freedom created a curiosity for adventure and travel among siblings, nieces and nephews at home and the American dream just grew and grew. Soon, it was all about another kind of freedom, such as jazz, Hollywood, road trips, Coca Cola and rock ‘n roll.
Amerikalinjen as a national symbol
The first settlers traveled in basic sailboats. Soon the steamships arrived, but the emigrants had to undertake a long and wretched journey. The first stage was across the North Sea to Great Britain, and then by train to another port. The majority of emigrants spent the journey across the Atlantic below deck, in large dormitories with narrow bunks. The sanitation was dreadful and the food was poor. Following the dissolution of the union between the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden in 1905, plans were laid for a transatlantic line, and in 1910 Den Norske Amerikalinjen was founded. Three years later, the elegant “Kristianiafjord” chugged into the Oslofjord for the very first time. Jubilant crowds gathered on islands and reefs along the fjord to greet the ship. In Horten, the marines were at attention; at Oscarsborg, the cannons fired a salute causing the gunpowder smoke to lay across the fjord, and everywhere one could hear shouts of “Hurrah” on this beautiful June day in 1913. After a triumphant voyage along the Norwegian coast, the ship set course for the USA, or “Junaiten” as it was known, on the symbolic date of 7 June, the anniversary of the dissolution of the union a few years earlier.
The guest list on the first journey by “Kristianiafjord” was filled with important people. In the records, the name of King Haakon is at the top, followed by Prime Minister Knudsen, the President of the Stortinget (Norway’s parliament), 12 ministers and finally Gustav Henriksen, Chief Executive Officer of Amerikalinjen.
Gustav Henriksen was not just anybody. When he joined Amerikalinjen, the whole project was faltering. The shipping company lacked capital, but led by Gustav, intensive influencing and PR work was carried out. Eventually, buying shares became popular far beyond financial circles. Many people were invited to be part of joint share purchasing, and on both sides of the Atlantic the “people’s share” took off.
Gustav was a man who thought big. He ordered the first two ships at the same time, and accelerated the plans for an administration building worthy of Den Norske Amerikalinjen. From here he would soon manage the company which carried over half a million Norwegians and vital goods over the sea for decades. A year before he died, Henriksen was appointed Commander of the Order of St Olav. Thanks to his work, Norway had established her own lifeline across the mighty ocean: between parents and children, between American and Norwegian culture.
The start of the journey
In 1919 the new administration building on Jernbanetorget opened its doors. Where people from all over the world now arrive to explore Oslo, our forefathers turned up to buy a ticket for their journey. They showed up in their best clothes and crossed the cobblestones on Jernbanetorget in newly-polished shoes. The distinguished building in the Neo-Baroque style, designed by the architects Bjercke and Eliassen, certainly made an impression. Not just on the travellers. When the building finally emerged from behind the hoardings in the summer of 1919, Aftenposten’s reporter highlighted the impressive oak door surrounded by the sea gods Triton and Nereide, carved in Iddefjord granite.
On the day of departure, the passengers arrived full of expectations back at Jernbanetorget 2 to deliver their duffle bags and cabin trunks before it was time to embark. In their luggage, they all had their most important possessions, often a good mix of useful tools and family treasures. Those travelling to visit relatives would have cheese slicer, Norwegian books and other gifts from the old country. The luggage was sent down a shaft for further processing in the basement, and from there it was unloaded on the other side of the building which faced the quay.
In the corner office on the second floor, Gustav Henriksen could see everything that was going on at Jernbanetorget and Østbanehallen. Many of Amerikalinjen’s passengers came by train from small towns and cities. Those looking to join the crew on the ships had to report their arrival at the back of the building, where the crew office was located.
Queen of the Atlantic
There was always a special atmosphere on the quay when the America ships came and went. Joyful reunions and heart-breaking farewells. However, nothing could match the annual Christmas ship. In the December darkness, Oslo people gathered on the quayside in fur coats and leather caps. Frost smoke hung in the raw sea air. In order to keep warm, they stood close to each other and looked out over the fjord. Finally, they glimpsed a light that grew stronger and stronger. It shone from the Christmas tree on the mast, and joy broke out before both the Norwegian and American national anthems poured out of the loudspeakers on the deck.
Of course, Julenissen, the Norwegian Father Christmas, was the first to step ashore. In his sack, he had oranges, chocolate and American candy, the likes of which Norwegian children had never seen before. Cameras flashed to capture the moment. The press was ready and waiting to spot actors, cultural personalities and well-known business people who were often among the 1,800 passengers coming home for Christmas. The ships also had precious goods on board. Everything from cars and agricultural machinery to canned goods, confectionery and cash. At one point, the money coming from America made up 10 percent of the Norwegian economy.
Work on board the ships was much sought after. Crew were needed, in the galley, as chamber maids and waiters, as deck officers, engineers and ship musicians. Some spent their whole working life going back and forth across the Atlantic. Others worked a crossing or two in order to get to a jazz concert in New York. Who wouldn’t spend eight days peeling potatoes in order to experience Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington?
The toughest job aboard the steamers was that of the mechanical stokers. Heavy buckets of coal had to be lugged into the boiler room when sea conditions made it impossible to use a wheelbarrow. It was very hot, noisy and hard work. The lads who worked here in the heart of the ship were known as “sooty angels”. There were stories of poor people who tried to work their passage across the ocean as coal heavers, but were not strong enough for the task. Halfway through the voyage, they saw only one way out. On the deck, only a pair of black boots remained …
Amerikalinjen sailed to several ports in the United States and Canada, and eventually the line expanded to several continents. Most famous of all, however, are the arrivals in New York, first at Pier 4 in Brooklyn, and then at legendary Pier 42 in Manhattan. During the approach, the passengers rushed out on deck in the morning mist to catch the light, the smells and the contours of the skyscrapers. First past Long Island, then Liberty Island with the Statue of Liberty. In the first few years, there was a mandatory immigration control for all third-class passengers on Ellis Island. If the authorities suspected illness, a mark was chalked on the person’s jacket, and they were sent on for a medical check-up and possibly quarantine. Two percent of immigrants who came to the United States were rejected and returned to their home country.
After the nerve-wracking control, the vast majority of people could go ashore, ready to start a new life or explore the world’s metropolis. In the streets by the pier, a little piece of Norway emerged. In the 1940s and 50s, Brooklyn was referred to as “Norway’s third largest city”, after Oslo and Bergen. At its peak, more than 100,000 Norwegians lived in the district.
Among Norwegians, 8th Avenue was nicknamed Lapskaus Boulevard. Here most people spoke Norwegian, and the restaurants served a traditional stew called lapskaus, as well as meatballs and mutton and cabbage. There were specialist travel agencies selling SAS tickets. At the news-stands, Verdens Gang, Aftenposten and other Norwegian newspapers dominated.
After the state of emergency during the second world war, traffic began to rise again, and for most people the journey became the main goal. In 1956, the line had three passenger ships in operation and transported more than 25,000 passengers across the sea. It became the best year ever.
Then came the turning point when as many people travelled by plane as by ship across the Atlantic. In the 1960s, Amerikalinjen concentrated on cruises with the new, luxurious vessels “Sagafjord” and “Vistafjord”. These boasted swimming pools, sundecks, cinemas and nightclubs as well as several bars and restaurants. The line that once transported impoverished immigrants with rich dreams now suited people with good incomes and plenty of time. It started with short, themed cruises in the Caribbean before the cruises went worldwide, from New York to West Africa, East Africa and India to the Far East, with a trip to Hawaii on the way back.
In the 1970s and 80s, the end was in sight for a series of proud chapters in Norwegian shipping history. With the sale of the freight traffic business in 1995, it was irrevocably over. Or was it?
People on the move
A proud administration building still stood at Jernbanetorget 2, but it soon acquired an anonymous existence. The stories about the settlers, explorers and sailors were pushed ever further back in the national consciousness.
Until now. A hundred years after Amerikalinjen welcomed its passengers in the ticket office, we are opening the oak doors for new generations of explorers. Ornaments and decorations have been renovated; we have filled up the glasses and transformed this once-iconic building into an intimate boutique hotel, a starting point for new discoveries for people on the move.
When the line began, there was poverty in Norway, and almost 900,000 people left home and set out during the great emigration. Today, people are coming here. Some to start a new life, others to explore new places and meet new people.
Embark on a journey of discovery and write your own story in the heart of Oslo’s vibrant melting pot of people, inspiration, art and culture. Now, as then, the opportunities begin here. At Amerikalinjen.