As early as the 1880’s, the largest local transoceanic liner, the Royal Hungarian Sea Navigation Company Adria Limited - Fiume, introduced cargo services to the main French and British ports and a transoceanic line to the Brazilian ports of Pernambuco, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro and Santos.
Although mainly a cargo service, by the end of the 19th century the South American line already carried a limited number of emigrants from the Rijeka region to South America, first to Brazil and then to Argentina. There they fleeced sheep, worked on farms and searched for gold.
Aurania, whose size, beauty and comfort awed Rijeka’s inhabitants set sail on 14 November for New York with only 52 emigrants on board. The ship sailed virtually empty, which some blamed on numerous agencies in Rijeka which sent emigrants to other ports.
On 18 December, another Cunard’s ship, the Carpathia, left Rijeka for New York, with 257 emigrants in third class and three in first class.
In early 1904, the Cunard introduced a third steamship, in order to maintain a regular biweekly service from Rijeka. Cunard withdrew the Carpathia from the service and added the Slavonia and the Ultonia with the Aurania to the route. Ships sailed out from Rijeka twice per month, on alternative Fridays. Three to four ships remained in service on the route, each ship having a capacity of approximately 2,000 passengers, mostly in third class. Sometimes there were more than a thousand supernumerary passengers. Cunard continued to sail from Rijeka to New York until 1914.
The new line coincided with the passing of new legal provisions, implemented on 20 April 1904. These regulations specified the size of ships and safety standards and provided that emigrants waiting in Rijeka would be entitled to free food and board for two days.
In case of overbooking, passengers would be taken free of charge by train to some other port and shipped from there to New York, all for the price of the Rijeka-New York ticket.
Other regulations pertained to limitations concerning men of military age.
Ticket prices were precisely stipulated – 180 crowns for ships with a maximum speed of 15 knots, 200 crowns for faster ships, half price for children. Special regulations banned emigration to Brazil.
After a six month introductory period, the Hungarian Government finally formalized its relationship with Cunard. Pursuant to the agreement, all Hungarian emigrants to North America had to travel from the port of Rijeka on Cunard ships. The Government granted Cunard a monopoly on the transport of all Hungarian citizens. In return, the shipper had to pay the Government 10 crowns for each passenger for a so-called Emigrants’ Fund.
The Government had to pay Cunard compensation of 100 crowns per passenger if it failed to meet the stipulated minimum of 30,000 passengers per year. In 1907, the quota was lowered in respond to a demand from the United States.
“Compared to the 180 crowns stipulated in the agreement between the Hungarian government and the Cunard Line, the German companies offered voyages at 80, or even 70 crowns. The Cunard Line reacted by lowering its price to 120 crowns, without waiting for an amendment to the agreement. They explained in a statement that they could not go any lower, as the 50 crowns difference with the German price had to be divided among the ticket agent (20 crowns), Adria Ltd. (20 crowns) and the Emigrants’ Fund (10 crowns).”
(Novi list, “American hills of gold”, 1904)
After several months, when the number of emigrants remained insufficient to guarantee the profitability of voyages, special trains from Hungary started bringing hundreds, even thousands, of supernumerary emigrants in late 1904. In early October the problem almost reached the proportions of a natural catastrophe.
Mayor Francesco Vio alerted the Minister of the Interior. The Mayor suggested that other than on a ship, and in the Emigrants’ Hotel, the passengers should be accommodated on trains that alight at the Rijeka train station.
After a short period of confusion, on 6 October 1904 the Slavonia set sail with 1,920 emigrants on board. About 1,500 supernumeraries were sent by train to Antwerp, to board the Carpathia.
On 20 October 1904, 2,063 passengers sailed from Rijeka on board of the next Cunard's ship, Pannonia On the next day, another 500 odd supernumeraries were sent by special train from Rijeka to Antwerp. From then on, supernumerary emigrants were sent to the Belgian port by special trains (sometimes two at a time) almost regularly.
In late 1904, the Government bought a house in the Turnić area in order to convert it into an emigrants’ refuge. Work on the Emigrants’ Hotel started in early 1906 in Via Volosca (formerly Industrijska, now Barčićeva Street) and the hotel was planned to accommodate 2000 people. It was opened in 1908.
Various offices were also situated in the building: a check-in office, an office of the commissioner for emigration, food and textile shops, a barber’s shop and a kiosk.
In spite of strict house rules, problems and thefts frequently occurred due to the large numbers of emigrants.
Between 1904 and 1914, 317,325 emigrants travelled from Rijeka to the USA. In the peak period, between 1904 and 1910, between 30,000 and 50,000 persons emigrated through Rijeka every year. During that period, only 1908 had been a slow year when only 15,322 persons emigrated due to a recession in the USA.
By number of boarded passengers, the port of Rijeka ranked 8th in Continental Europe (not counting the English ports of Liverpool and Southampton).
Although the only port in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and thus obligatory for Hungarian emigrants, only a quarter of all emigrants from Hungary (1,256,821) during that period used Rijeka. Although abating, the outflow of emigrants towards northern and western ports remained significant.
Only in the early 1900’s, when the USA decided to establish a full time consular office in Rijeka, did it post American citizens and professional consular officers in Rijeka. In February 1904 young Fiorello LaGuardia was transferred from Budapest to Rijeka, as the only official of the American Consular Agency in town. His main task in Rijeka was to screen the emigrants awaiting boarding in the port for the biweekly service to New York.
Young but ambitious La Guardia, the future Congressman, Mayor of New York and Director of UNRRA left for New York in June 1906, but the Consular Agency remained open until the early 1920s. Upon his return La Guardia resumed his work with emigrants, this time as an interpreter. The immigration service found him very useful due to his command of several languages; other than English and Italian, he spoke French, Spanish, German and Croatian.
The ethnic breakdown of the emigrants from Rijeka remained steady. Ethnic Hungarians constituted half of the passengers from Rijeka, with Slovaks numbering more that 20%, Germans and Romanians accounting for more than 10% each, and the Croats (3%) more numerous that the Ruthenians (who, in turn, had been more numerous than the Serbs). The number of Austrian citizens, mostly from the Croatian Littoral (Hrvatsko primorje) region, proved negligible – this included several dozen Austrians, i.e., Primorje people from the Austrian territories. Every year, several dozen naturalized Americans returned to the US from Rijeka, as well as an insignificant number of genuine foreigners – Bulgarians, Russians, Italians and Greeks. A large number of Germans, Romanians and Ruthenians came from Vojvodina (former Southern Hungary) and western parts of today’s Romania (Timisoara), which was a part of Austria-Hungary.
As early as 1860s, there are emigrants from the Croatian Littoral in California. They came from Omišalj, Dubašnica and Sveti Vid on Krk. They included Jure Grego, Petar Kraljić, owner of a saloon in 1860, Marko Grego, owner of a furniture shop, Dinko Maršić, owner of a fruit shop, and others.
Early on, those from the Littoral started travelling to South America. Mateo Paravić from Krasica arrived on the Falkland Islands with missionary ambitions. Then he moved to the port of Santa Cruz in Chile, where he failed to convert the local Indians. He left for Patagonia in 1864 to dig for gold. Then he worked as a rancher and a sailor. He died in the 1880s in the wreck of his ship Victoria, at the estuary of the Santa Cruz, leaving behind his Chilean wife and eight children.
In 1864, a rather large group from the village of Rukavac above Opatija arrived in California. By 1883, their community there grew to 140 persons. They lived in Arcata and Eureka, cities in the Bay of Humboldt.
A report from Modruš-Rijeka County states:
“Emigration from the Littoral to America is still going on, but at a slower pace. Some 10 to 15 years ago, people moved to America in droves in order to make a fortune there and come home rich. Actually, many of those who managed to improve their financial situation there, have come back and are now well off.”
But the mass migration started around 1900. By 1910, more than 60,000 persons, out of 220,000 (1910), had emigrated from sparsely populated Modruš-Rijeka county (not including the town of Rijeka), most of which went to America.
According to some estimates, half a million Croats emigrated to America. More emigrants came only from Poland and Slovakia.