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The Trip Over

May 12, 2021

Few of us are old enough to remember. Still fewer of us can even imagine.

Coming to America in the 19th century was a far stretch from coming to America today. First, there were no jet planes to whisk you from one continent to another in 10 hours. The crossing was by ship and it usually took 8 to 10 days of often super uncomfortable travel. My grandparents made this long trip several times.

Many, many Italians and Tiroleans traveled to America on the SS La Bretagne. The ship sailed from between 1886 and 1923 and carried thousands to a waiting Ellis Island on the Le Havre–New York route, initially with the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) shipping company. My grandparents, Eugenio Rizzi and his wife Anna Flor made several trips to the U.S. on this vessel.

La Bretagne was launched 9 September 1885 by CGT in Saint-Nazaire. Built for France to New York service, she had a 7,112 gross tonnage and measured 150.99 metres (495 ft 4 in) long between perpendiculars and 15.78 metres (51 ft 9 in) wide. Equipped with twin triple-expansion steam engines driving a single screw propeller that drove her at 17 knots (31 km/h), she was outfitted with two funnels and four. La Bretagne was initially equipped with accommodations for 390 first-class, 65 second-class, and 600 third-class passengers. Her hull was made of steel from the foundries at Terre-Noire and featured eleven bulkheads which created twelve watertight compartments; her deck was planked with Canadian elm and teak. The ship cost $1,700,000 (about $45 million today). As dated and run down as the ship appears in pictures, it was actually one of the classier vessels for transporting immigrants.

In 1912, the newly reorganized Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique purchased a number of second-hand ships—including La Bretagne—for its relaunch of South American service from France. Bretagne sailed on the South American service through 1923, the last four years under the name of Alesia. In December 1923, Alesia was sold to a Dutch firm for scrapping. While on her way to the shipwrecker, Alesia’s tow line parted and the ship ran aground on the island of Texel, becoming a total loss.

Along with sister ships La Champagne, La Bourgogne and La Gascogne, La Bretagne carried the bulk of Tiroleans to America on trips that a usually terminated at Ellis Island in New York. From there, most had a destination in mind, often joining relatives or friends who had already made the trip over. For the Tiroleans, these destinations most often included mining towns in Wyoming, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Once they were settled in, one of the first pieces of business was to become an American citizen.

Photo: SS La Bretagne circa 1895.

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  1. Wonderful post. Wonderful family history. I came from France (where I was born) to the US in 1962 aboard the SS United States. Much had changed since the days of the La Bretagne.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am beyond impressed. I speak Marine, trucker, cowboy and smart-ass proficiently. English is debatable.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. We enjoy checking out Ellis Island

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great story, Allen, well told.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. People have forgotten, but sea-travel was the norm. My father spent his childhood in Egypt. From 1918 to 1939. My grandfather worked at the Canal de Suez. So they went home on furlough (and back to Egypt) on boats. I still have photos. Another era.
    All well?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is so easy to “jet hop” from one continent to another these days but is was certainly grueling a century ago.

      Liked by 1 person

      • One of my ancestors sailed from France to India in 1794. I think the trip lasted weeks or months. He settled in India and never came back. His descendants did. many were sent to study in either France or England. Just imagine how long an exchange of letters took, back and forth.
        Tutto bene?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Abbastanza. Attendo con impazienza la fine di questa sciocchezza Covid.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Anche io. Now we already have our tickets for France early July, and have just confirmed our booking in Paris. We have our shots, I now think unless there is a major disaster, we will go. How about you?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Still holding tough. The situation in Italy changes weekly so we will wait until some calm prevails.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I guess we will have to get used to chaos…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. My mother came from German this way as a toddler, with her parents and older sister. They didn’t come in at Ellis Island but did settle in Michigan.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on T. W. Dittmer and commented:
    This a great story of Allen Rizzi’s family coming to America.

    Liked by 1 person

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