The Dutch Door To America


The Speedwell , with its sixty-four passengers, departed for Southampton at dawn on July 22, 1620, where they planned to sail for America in tandem with the Mayflower . Problems with the ship forced the emigrants onto the Mayflower . Another thirty-nine emigrants, most of whom were not Pilgrims, joined them. William Brewster, who had still been living underground in Holland, traveled under an assumed name to meet up with them, outwitting the British authorities in Delfshaven and Southampton. They arrived at Plymouth Rock two months later, after storms drove them north of their destination in Virginia. More Pilgrims left Leiden in 1621 on the Fortune , in 1623 on the Anne , and in 1629 on a second Mayflower .

Delfshaven, incorporated into Rotterdam in 1886, is the only part of the city that survived the bombings of World War II. Today café and shops occupy historically restored pakhuisen (warehouses) there, alone with an early-eighteenth-century jenever (gin) distillery windmill and a jenever proeferij (gin-tasting bar). The Raadhuis (City Hall), built in 1580, was restored on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ departure; in its lobby hangs a replica of the Mayflower ’s passenger list.

After immersion in Delfshaven’s cozy diorama-like neighborhood, the visitor can step out into the surrounding hubbub of the dynamic Rotterdam that grew up in the huge, empty swaths left by World War II. Today’s city is a postwar playground of whimsical and audacious architecture. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

After a stop in cozy, diorama-like Delfshaven, the visitor can step out into the dynamic Rotterdam that grew up in the huge, empty swaths left by World War II.

The Europoort is the world’s largest port, where stacked rows of the colorful containers that revolutionized shipping look like huge cubist sculptures. Today 40 percent of all goods crossing Europe pass through the Netherlands, most through this harbor, yet an important historic site remains: the Wilhelminakade (Wilhelmina Pier).

During the seventeenth century Rotterdam’s waterfront became a departure point for European emigrants. William Penn traveled often to Holland and Germany to disseminate his tract Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania , which described the colonies as “the Seeds of Nations.” By 1730 hundreds of Mennonites had passed through Rotterdam to make their way to Pennsylvania.

In 1873 the Wilhelminakade, built on a peninsula that juts out into the Meuse River, became the gateway not only for the first tourist passengers of the Holland America Line, who took luxurious cruises around the world, but also for more humble emigrants bound for Canada, Brazil, Australia, and the United States. They often stayed in the port for several days in a landverhuizer (emigrants’) hotel. Holland America’s, more dormitory than hotel, had nine hundred beds. While there, emigrants were deloused, given medical examinations, and prepared for their immigration inspections in New York. American legislation had made the shipping companies responsible for sending healthy travelers. If the passengers failed their tests, the companies were fined and had to pay for return passage.

In 1984 Holland America sold its Rotterdam headquarters. The building stood empty for ten years and only recently reopened, with much of the Art Nouveau decor and two domed clock towers still intact, as the very chic Hotel New York. The hotel sits majestically at the tip of the Wilhelminakade, a sentinel to passing ships and an emblem of an enduring link between the two nations. There is easy access from the main part of the city, by driving across the Erasmus Bridge, but the trip is best made by water taxi, which leaves from Veerhaven in Rotterdam and goes directly to the pier. As one stands there, overlooking misty Rotterdam and the busy maritime scene, it’s easy to cast one’s thoughts back to times when emigrants walked up the gangway to uncertain futures and when others with more substantial means prepared for luxurious cruises.


Passenger ships began to dock here again in 1996. There are plans to renovate the entire waterfront area in the distinct Dutch fashion, where old is reinvented and historical blends with functional, and soon docks that were once alive with traffic in exotic spices and teas will reopen as a market selling decorative carvings, rugs, and the like.