A History

1870 - 1883

The Launching of the Company

At the beginning of the 1870's the future of the port of Rotterdam did not look very promising. Trade with the USA was expanding and the newly-opened Suez Canal provided a steamer route to the East Indies, both factors favouring the introduction of larger ships. The size of vessels entering Rotterdam, however, was seriously limited by the Voorne Canal. A maximum length of 270 ft. was imposed by the locks at Hellevoet, although larger ships could pass at high water with the gates open. A more serious handicap was the limiting draught of about 17 ft., making it necessary for larger ships to part-load or unload at Flushing or elsewhere. Shipowners tended therefore to favour the rival port of Amsterdam.

An alternative deep-water route, the New Waterway, linking Rotterdam direct to the Hook of Holland, had been begun some years earlier.This project was due to the foresight, persistence and ability of P. Caland but, with the limited funds available and other difficulties, progress was slow. The situation was comparable to that at Liverpool during the period when the dredging and facing of a channel through the bar was being carried out. Rotterdam had excellent inland waterway connections and the port was determined both to have a line to America and that shipping should not be outclassed by rival Dutch and North German ports. Until the New Waterway was completed Rotterdam would have to keep in the running with the largest ships able to use the Voorne Canal.

Accordingly the private firm of Plate, Reuchlin & Co. was founded by two young partners on the 8th of February 1871, with sufficient capital to build two ships only - not four as originally hoped. Equally disappointing was the late delivery of the two ships, the first of which, SS ROTTERDAM, did not sail on her maiden voyage to New York until the 15th of October 1872. During her trial trip, previously, consternation had been caused when, during an after-dinner speech, the builder announced that it was his firm's custom to interpret orders generously and the owners would find they had obtained a vessel somewhat longer than specified! When entering the lock at Hellevoetsluis the ships carpenter stood at the bow and the boatswain at the stern, hatchets in hand, ready to cut away ornamental scroll work. However, to the great relief of all on board, the lock gates could just be closed with a fender at the bow and the counter at the stern just touching the outer lock gate.

Antoine Plate (left), Jonkheer Otto Reuchlin and W. van der Hoeven

The ROTTERDAM was an iron ship of nearly 1,700 tons gross, brig-rigged with single screw driven by a 1,300 h.p. compound engine giving her a service speed of 10-1/2 knots. She could carry 8 first class passengers and 380 steerage passengers with 1,500 tons of cargo, and make the voyage to New York in about 15 days. With her sister ship MAAS (later MAASDAM), a monthly service could be maintained.

Results of the first voyages were encouraging and expansion was decided upon, but as Plate, Reuchlin & Co. had insufficient capital, the firm was consolidated with a much older man, Mr. W. Van der Hoeven, as Managing Director. This was the Nederlandsch-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart-Maatschappij (Netherlands-American Steam Navigation Company), or NASM for short, founded on the 18th of April 1873. Later, from about 1896, this famous concern also became internationally known as the Holland-America Line. One of the principal shareholders was a W. A. Scholten, who himself considered founding a steamship company but, having decided to give his full support to the NASM instead, was made one of the directors. The parent company, Plate, Reuchlin & Co., was absorbed into the new organization.

The new and larger ships, fittingly named after two great benefactors of the company, were ordered: P. Caland and W. A. Scholten. Of over 2,500 tons gross they could carry 50 cabin and 600 steerage passengers as well as 2,400 tons of cargo. They were barquentine-rigged and the only clipper-bowed ships built for the line. It was realized that these larger vessels could only pass Hellevoet at high water and could only be partially loaded at Rotterdam. but things were going well and progress was being made on the New Waterway. So much so, in fact, that a ship had to be chartered. This was the CASTOR of the Amsterdam line, KNSM or Koninklujke Nederlandsche Stoomboot Maatschappij (Royal Netherlands Steamship Company). Unfortunately the promising state of affairs was not destined to last, for, in the autumn of 1874 when the new ships were due to come into service, a severe depression in the USA set in. Freight rates and the number of steerage passages fell alarmingly, whilst at the same time many new steamships were coming into service on the North Atlantic. In 1875 very heavy weather was encountered, causing much damage to shipping, the W. A. SCHOLTEN was badly crippled by running into ice.

Not until the end of the year was there any improvement, and then only slight, but during 1876 a steady increase in inward freights took place. As a result, the SAN MARCOS, a ship of much greater capacity, was chartered, later purchased and renamed SCHIEDAM. In the spring of the same year serious silting-up of the New Waterway occurred and it was not until 1881 that work was resumed on Caland's plan, being finally completed in 1886. Caland had resigned meanwhile, in his disappointment at the long delay in re-starting operations. Before completion, NASM ships had suffered frequent damage to propellers and rudders, which together with the irksome partial transhipments of cargoes at Fluhsing and Brouwershaven, caused continual delays and extra expenditure.

In 1878-9 conditions rapidly improved in the USA, freights rose as did the demand for passages, and the NASM ordered a new 2,950-ton ship, the AMSTERDAM, following this a year later with the order of the sister ship EDAM. At the same time, as a result of increasing passenger traffic, the SCHIEDAM (below) was converted from a well-decked to a flush-decked ship with steerage accommodation.


Meanwhile the rival port of Amsterdam, with its deeper access via the North Sea Canal, had not been idle. The KNSM, which had previously been unlucky in attempts to run an American service, began to run Amsterdam-New York passenger and cargo services in 1881. This line fared extremely well and Holland-America, in the following year, decided to base its own vessels on Amsterdam. The EDAM was its first ship to sail from that port, on the 8th of April 1882. Her draught was 22 ft., whereas from Rotterdam it would have been limited to 17 ft. The resulting competition reduced rates to an uneconomically low level, whilst the loss of the EDAM by collision in September 1882 was a severe blow to the Company. In 1883, however, local competition was eliminated by an agreement whereby the Holland-America ran equal services from Rotterdam and Amsterdam to New York for ten years, taking over on charter two KNSM ships. Nevertheless freights remained low, mainly owing to the large number of foreign competitors attracted by the prospects on the North Atlantic.

Meanwhile the ZAANDAM, 3,000 tons, of 1882, had been built at the Fijenoord yard: the first Holland-America ship to be built in the Netherlands. She was followed by the LEERDAM, 2,800 tons, and a new EDAM, 3,100 tons, both from the same builders, the EDAM being the first steel ship on the North Atlantic to be constructed outside Britain.

Next Chapter:

1883 - 1900

Weathering the Storm

(The above text is from H. M. Le Fleming's Ships of the Holland-America Line, John Marshbank Ltd. Publishers, 1963, 1965.)

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