When Marcel Nas boarded Holland America Line’s Rotterdam ship in the Netherlands last month, he began a migrant journey many had made before. But as the massive modern vessel chased the sunset, it cast a much longer shadow than the smaller steamship of the same name would have 150 years earlier.
Nas, 51, left his home in Bemmel for a new life in the United States with his wife, Elizabeth Barnhardt, fittingly sailing on the special transatlantic voyage that marked the anniversary of the line’s first trip in 1872 – which also carried migrants and retraced its original journey from Europe to New York City.
He and Barnhardt, who is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, met on another Holland America cruise in 2013. They dated long distance for several years, before deciding to settle down together, and Nas began the green card process in 2019. During that time, they got married and Nas received his green card in May.
They packed his belongings in September and decided to sail partly to avoid paying for checked baggage on flights. “…We have so much stuff under our bed right now,” Barnhardt told USA TODAY during the cruise.
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But for Nas, coming to America in the age of cellphones and rapid air travel was less daunting than it may have been for those venturing across the ocean in 1872. “Now … I mean, in 12 hours, 13 hours you’re (back) home,” Nas said.
The voyage, which continued on to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and which the line will make in reverse in April, highlighted the ways travel by ship changed dramatically in the time since the line’s first sailing.
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Rotterdam I, Holland America’s first ship, carried 70 passengers on its first voyage in 1872, according to a fact sheet provided by the line. On the roughly 270-foot-long ship, 10 passengers sailed in first class while 60 sailed in third class, also known as steerage, and the crew was on board.
By contrast, the current Rotterdam – the seventh Holland America ship with that name – measuring 984 feet long carried about 1,900 passengers on the anniversary sailing.
The first-class passengers on the original voyage were likely “merchant types” or business people, according to Bill Miller, a maritime historian who gave lectures during the cruise last month. “I wouldn’t think there’s much tourism going to New York in 1872 for summer vacation,” he said. Those in the third class were generally poorer, and one-class cruising was not introduced until many years later.
Passengers emigrating were “people seeking religious, economic and political freedom” in the U.S., Miller said. Some were from The Netherlands, while others were from Germany or Eastern Europe.
First-class tickets back then cost $36, while tickets for third class cost between $20 and $25, according to the fact sheet.
At the time of the first voyage, ships did not have the amenities the Rotterdam VII or other modern vessels are known for, like pools and casinos, or roller coasters
“They probably didn’t even have running water in first class, it had to be brought in a jug,” Miller said. “And you didn’t have a private bath in your cabin. You had to go down the hall (and) make a reservation.”
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While first-class passengers traveled in relative luxury in cabins that had an armchair, washbasin and oil lamp, among other items, those in third class stayed in dormitory-like conditions with some accommodations sleeping between six and 12 people, while others could hold as many as 40, according to the Holland America fact sheet.
“They were very poor people, many of them, and it was very minimal, so one little suitcase or one little sack might have been all they had,” Miller added.
First-class passengers were offered four meals a day in the ship’s saloon, including a breakfast of barley and meat and fish as well as tea and bread. Those in third class were given food directly from the galley – likely three times daily – and received simpler provisions. “Perhaps a bowl of soup or stew or bread,” Miller said.
The line was officially founded in 1873 as the Netherlands-American Steamship Co. before later changing its name. In the line’s early days, transatlantic crossings made up a large portion of its business, according to Miller, in addition to bringing goods like cheese and gin to the U.S. and carrying mail.
By the 1920s, as the U.S. set immigration quotas, Holland America and other lines turned their focus to tourism, Miller said. “And so the steerage quarters down below were dressed up a little bit with some fabric and some paint and called tourist class instead of third class or steerage,” he said, for budget travel.
Modern cruising with a focus on leisure travel began to emerge in the 1960 and ’70s after airlines snatched the vast majority of transatlantic business. But some passengers, like Nas and Barnhardt, still opt to take the long way.
The couple plans to live together in North Carolina, and both work as temporary employees so they can spend more time on cruises. “That’s our happy place,” said Barnhardt.

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