Before Expedia: Travel Bureaus and Immigrants

By: John Grabowski, PhD

Krieger Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History  CWRU
Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, Western Reserve Historical Society
Editor, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

In the last twenty-five years the travel industry has seen enormous changes.   Self-booking via the internet has become the way “to go” in terms of arranging transport and accommodation.  This technological shift has taken a toll on independent travel bureaus, the number of which has dwindled significantly.   But some of the still existing businesses have origins that have little to do with going on holiday.   

Many travel bureaus began business by bringing people to Cleveland.   Almost every immigrant neighborhood in the city had a steamship agent whose main business was to get people from “there” to “here”, and also to arrange for money to be sent back to the homeland.   Michael Kniola’s business served the “Warsawa” Polish community along Fleet Avenue, while Joseph Tetlak, worked with the Poles in Tremont, and the Lewandowski bureau served the Poles in the Poznan area near St. Clair.   Henry Spira sold steamship tickets and started a foreign exchange service and a bank in the largely Jewish lower Woodland community.  His customers would have included Jews, Italians, and other nationalities resident in the area.  He would prosper and become a prominent figure in the Jewish Community.   Years later, in the 1950s Louis Depaolo, the unofficial “mayor of Little Italy” assisted Italian immigrants and also sponsored annual tours of Italy.  All of these individuals, and others became important “go to” people in their communities.

Changing technologies in the late nineteenth century spurred the growth of this industry.   The greatest changes were in transportation and communication.   The growth of railroad systems in the US and in Europe and, particularly, scheduled trans-oceanic packet steamship transportation made getting from “there to here” regular and systematic.  The financial success of the great ocean liners rested, in large part, on the immigrant trade — and the immigrant trade was driven by the growing labor needs of industrial cities like Cleveland.  

By the late nineteenth century a steamship agent/travel broker  in Cleveland could arrange a travel package that would take a European immigrant from a town near his/her home to a port in Europe, across the ocean, and to Cleveland by rail.  These journeys were often arranged by family or friends who had already arrived in the city.   That same agent could also send money earned in Cleveland back to the homeland.   A growing global network of telegraph lines made all of this possible.  This interconnectivity was a harbinger of what we know today.

This trade would flourish up to the first World War and then briefly again after the conflict, until the time when the United States severely restricted immigration in the 1920s.   It would revive after the cataclysm of World War II, but by the 1950s and 1960s, many immigrant travel bureaus were also arranging holidays for the descendants of the immigrant they had brought over – many of which took people back to their ancestral land – and by the late 1960s more often by air than by sea.

Today there are few remnants of this immigrant-based industry in Cleveland.  Kollander World Travel, which has worked with the South Slavic community for ninety-eight years, is an important link to this part of our community’s history.  It still books travel and tours – much of which are back to Slovenia and Croatia.  But, the history also lives on in the archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society.   Henry Spira’s papers are part of our collections as is an enormous archive of the Michael Kniola travel agency.    Kniola’s papers document thousands of trips from the then divided lands of Poland to Cleveland and almost an equal number of fund transfers sent by immigrant workers in our city to family and relatives.   WRHS also holds artifacts from the Kniola Bureau, including the wooden counter over which countless passages were arranged.

These collections reflect on a world well before Expedia – but one which still echoes today.  True, most of us see travel as a holiday experience, but countless other people around the globe still see it as a route to safety and a secure life – a fact that echoes through every daily news report.