Foyle Maritime Memories of Derry as a transatlantic gateway to the US

editorial image

On Friday, April 15, 1927, the ‘Derry Standard’ began to publish local photographs in the pages of its newspaper.

These images were rescued by David Bigger and Terence McDonald in 1968 after the paper’s closure in 1966, and the whole collection now rests with Libraries NI at Derry Central Library.

Brian Mitchell has researched a selection of these photographs, 110 in total, focusing specifically on the maritime history of the city from 1927-1939.

Images include the activity on the quays, loading and unloading of ships, tug-tenders plying between Derry and Moville, transatlantic liners, the Scotch Boat and emigrants and passengers on board the tenders, liners and cross-channel steamers.

The arrival on the Foyle on Sunday, July 2, 1933 of General Balbo and his ‘Italian Transatlantic Air Armada’ on their way to Chicago’s World Fair is captured.

The year before, Derry had been the centre of another big trans-Atlantic news story that had captured the world’s imagination: the arrival of Amelia Earhart on Saturday, May 21, 1932, the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo, at Robert Gallagher’s farm at Ballyarnet. This event is captured in 6 pages of photographs.

This book illustrates the vitality and importance of Derry’s north Atlantic outlook.

One of the fascinating photographs (above) is captioned: “Destination New York. A young boy and girl, holding the US flag, wait at a railway station for a train to take them to Derry to connect with a transatlantic liner”.

The rail network that converged on Derry drew emigrants from the northern half of Ireland.

Hence, the passenger manifests of transatlantic liners departing Derry, listed, not only passengers from the city’s traditional catchment areas of Counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone, but also emigrants from the other six counties of Ulster and from the northern counties of Connacht and Leinster.

Prior to 1924 emigrants destined for New York had to report to the Immigration Station at Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was the gateway for 12 million immigrants to USA between 1892 and 1924, the busiest immigration station in USA.

It is estimated that 10.5 million immigrants departed for points across the US from the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal located just across a narrow strait from Ellis Island.

With passing of Immigration Act of 1924 no emigrant could enter the US without a valid immigration visa which was issued by an American consular officer in Ireland.

Hence, from 1924, emigrants with valid paperwork didn’t need to be inspected at Ellis Island on their way to New York.

Today a visit to Ellis Island is seen by many Americans as a pilgrimage to honour immigrant ancestors.

This image is held in Bigger and McDonald collection in Derry Central Library at reference RLY 3-11.

In 1930 the Anchor Line were promoting their ‘Londonderry & Belfast to New York’ service on their ‘New Oil-Burning Liners “California,” “Caledonia,” “Cameronia,” “Tuscania,” “Transylvania,” – all 16,700 Tons’; and the Anchor-Donaldson Line their ‘Londonderry and Belfast to Canada’ service which sailed ‘in Summer to Quebec and Montreal; in Winter to Halifax and St. John, N.B., or Portland, Maine’.

For many emigrants the boarding houses and hotels in and around Bridge Street (such as Metropole and the Canadian Hotel) was where they slept on their arrival, usually by train, in Derry.

At the bottom of Bridge Street was the jetty, at the ‘Transatlantic Tenders’ shed on Abercorn Quay beside the Great Northern Railway station, where the tenders of the Moville Steamship Company and, from 1928, of the Anchor Line took emigrants to Moville to board the liners that left weekly for the USA and Canada.

Brian Mitchell’s new book, Foyle Maritime Memories; Photographs from the Bigger and McDonald Collection 1927-1939, is published by Colourpoint Books of Newtownards. It is now available in local bookshops (price £9.99) or online at http://www.colourpointbooks.co.uk