I think I found the record of my great-grandmother’s passage to America. If I’m right, she sailed to New York on the S.S. Elbe in January 1895. It turned out to be the last group of immigrants to cross over on the Elbe. Later that month, on its next scheduled trip to New York, the ship sank in the North Sea, killing all but 20 of its 352 passengers and crew.
The search for Mary Sabol’s immigration records has been a challenge from the outset. I knew from census records that she came to America in either 1894 or 1895. But for the longest time, I couldn’t find her maiden name. Now I know that she was born Maria Daniel in January 1880.
So I went back to the records on ancestry.com and the Ellis Island website, looking for a teenage girl by that name arriving in the mid-1890s.
Sure enough, a person named Maria Daniel appears on an Ellis Island passenger manifest dated January 12, 1895. There is nothing in this record, like the name of a relative or a precise hometown, that would prove beyond a doubt that this is my great-grandmother. (Congress required more information on these forms starting in 1907, making it much easier to make a definite match.) Still, the circumstantial evidence is pretty solid.
Maria boarded the Elbe in Bremen, Germany some time around New Year’s Day 1895. The ship made a brief stop in Southampton, England to pick up two additional passengers. There were 234 passengers on board. Of these, 162 traveled in steerage and 93 were women.
The passenger manifest only tells us that Maria was 15 years old. (My great-grandmother would have been 14 years old at the time.) She had no occupation. And she had two pieces of luggage.
She appears on the list amid several other people from Hungary, but they were all traveling to different final destinations. Maria’s final destination is listed as “N.Y.”
Of course, my great-grandmother’s final destination was Raritan, New Jersey where she presumably was welcomed by her half-brother John Hovan and numerous other friends and neighbors from her hometown of Kysak, Austria.
So is this how my great-grandmother traveled to America? I may never be able to say for sure. If it was indeed her, she narrowly averted tragedy.
According to news accounts from the time, the Elbe was on its way back to New York with a planned stopover in Southampton. Encountering rough seas and heavy winds off the coast of England, the ship’s captain ordered that rockets be sent up at regular intervals to warn other craft.
In the early morning hours of January 30, another large ship – the steamer Craithie – did not see the warning rockets and crashed at full speed into the Elbe, leaving an enormous hole in the ship’s side.
According to the New York Times:
The shock and crash roused everybody. The steerage was in a panic in a moment and men, women, and children, half-dressed or in their night clothes, came crowding up the companionways.
They had heard the sound of rushing water as the other steamer backed off, and had felt the Elbe lurch and settle. They realized at once that it was then life or death with them, and almost every one succumbed to terror.
They clung together in groups, facing the cold and storm, and cried aloud for help or prayed on their knees for deliverance.
The officers and crews were calm. For a few moments, they went among the terror-stricken groups, trying to quiet them, and encouraging them to hope that the vessel might be saved.
But the vessel could not be saved. Three life boats were lowered but the first was swamped before anyone could get in. As for the other two life boats, it seems the crew’s priority was so save themselves. Crew members took life preservers away from passengers and yanked them out of the life boats. Of the twenty survivors, fifteen were officers and seamen. Only five passengers were rescued and only one of these was a woman.
All of the survivors were in a pitiable condition. They were but half clothed. Their few garments were frozen stiff, their hair coated with ice, and anxiety and effort had exhausted them so completely that they had to helped ashore.
If the Maria Daniel on the passenger manifest was indeed my great-grandmother, I can scarcely imagine how she would have reacted to the news of this tragedy. Had she set out from home a few weeks later, would she have shared this horrible fate?