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Handling The Immigrant at Ellis Island - 1896

It was a day in May ; but there was no vernal softness in the air, no balmy winds, no limpid blue in the arching sky. Gray clouds hung over the harbor like a pall—cold, lowering, depressing.

The Lucania was coming in.

The Receiving Room at Ellis Island

She was forcing her noiseless way through the misty wall that shut down between us and the sea ; cautiously she ploughed her way up through the Narrows, past the rugged shores of Staten Island, newly softened in tender green ; past the forts, the islands, the Battery, and at last drew up with slow dignity and precision at Pier No. 40.

Among her thirteen hundred souls on board that chilly May day were three hundred and fifty cabin passengers and nine hundred and fifty steerage.

The positive and negative poles of a battery are not more opposite than the classes represented by the above figures. The very manner of disembarking testifies to the difference existing between the two.

My lady's maid gathers up the rugs, cushions, bags, umbrellas, and steamer comforts—the thousand and one little belongings a woman manages to scatter about her, even when " cribbed, cabined, and confined " in the narrow quarters of a berth. The deft, well-trained hands assist her mistress to slip off the loose, comfortable travelling gown, and put her into the natty costume that has " Paris " written all over it.

As the gang-plank is thrown out my lady, coldly smiling, greets her dear five hundred as she moves off on the arm of the first officer, who is nothing if not gallant. She steps into the softly-cushioned carriage that for hours has been awaiting her arrival and is whirled away ; leaving to servants, relatives, and friends the disposal of the ten, twenty, or thirty trunks, hampers, cases, and silver-mounted bags that seem the necessary paraphernalia for her annual trip across.

Let us step across the deck. Here in close, narrow quarters, standing like cattle waiting to be unpinned, are the thousand immigrants that is the quota that the Lucania empties into our lap today.

There are no languid airs, no soft tones and weary countenances o'er cast with ennui here. Rugged, sun-browned faces arc lit up with hope and fear, love, joy, and sorrow. Hope for success in the new land to which they are voluntary exiles ; fear of the unknown future ; joy that the long-dreaded voyage is over ; and sorrow at the memories tugging at their heart-strings ; thoughts " that lie too deep for tears " as the village, the glen, the mountain stream loom up before homesick eyes that perhaps will close for ever under these skies. Here in the steerage are no neat-handed Abigails to collect and carry luggage.

The sturdy little mother gives an extra twist to the bright handkerchief knotted under the dark face that was bronzed under an Irish, German, or Italian sky, then gathers up in her broad arms the most helpless of the dozen or so infants she can call her own, and collects the remainder to marshal them into line for the coming steamer.

The father grasps the cord handles of the black glazed bags, full to bursting of their little worldly possessions, and, talking incessantly, moves forward with the crowd to the side of the vessel where waits The Rosa, the little steamer which plies between the incoming vessels and Ellis Island.

At length they are all transferred—Hans, with his ruddy blonde face, his thick boots, his beloved pipe, his stolid immobility, in such sharp contrast to his neighbor's volubility ; Pat is there with Mary and his little flock, a half-humorous, half-fearsome expression on his honest, open countenance as he moves forward with the rest, jostled by Slovenian, Pole, Scandinavian, Jew, and Austrian.

The sides of The Rosa are perilously near to the water's edge so packed is she with her human freight. She moves swiftly on through the tossing gray waves toward the tiny island lying east of the gigantic Liberty that lifts her friendly torch on high to light the way for all to new homes, new hopes, new interests.

Castle Garden

In a few moments the steamer is made fast to the wharf and the long, steady stream begins to enter the great receiving-room. Thousands reading these lines today can recall their own feelings of bewilderment and terror what time they landed, a stranger in a strange land, at old Castle Garden, one of the landmarks of our city.

Remodelled for the reception of immigrants that began to pour into the country in the 1840's, it has temporarily sheltered for the past fifty years the greater part of the eighteen millions who have arrived here, one-third of whom came in between 1880 and 1890.

Forty years ago this quaint old building was the largest auditorium in the city. It was there that Jenny Lind and Catherine Hayes, " the Irish Nightingale," delighted thousands with their sweet voices. Today it is being fitted up as an aquarium ; for in January, 1892, the Federal government took the immigration problem out of the hands of the State, and Secretary Carlisle removed the Depot of Immigration to Ellis Island, with Dr. J. H. Senner as Commissioner of Immigration for the port of New York, and Edward F. McSweeney as Assistant Commissioner.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island is but a tiny bit of land, but it has a history all its own. It was here that the Dutch, and afterwards the early English governors, stored the town's ammunition. On its shores the Dutch made their first landing after their wreckage at Hell-Gate had decided their settlement on Manhattan Island. Later it was known as Gibbet Island because of the execution of criminals which always took place there ; and here for the past four years have been received the hundred thousand strangers who have done so much for the material progress of our land.

Nowadays most minute record is kept of every person who enters, but from colonial days to 1820 no record was taken of immigration ; however, it is roughly estimated that there were one-quarter of a million added to our population during that period. The awful famine years of Ireland added an immense number, and lately the flood of Italian immigration which began early this year has increased to alarming proportions, a late Atlantic liner bringing as many as 1,151 sons of Italy in one trip. Immigrants of other nationalities have fallen off in numbers.

The Path of the Immigrant

How about the Lucania's load ? In that, too, the majority were Italians, though with a large sprinkling of Germans, Irish, and Swedes.

The landing and disposal of a big shipment of immigrants is a most interesting sight. From the time they board The Rosa, or other of the transportation steamers, they are in a constant turmoil of excitement, until they are tumbled like bundles of luggage into the express-wagons at the barge-office.

Hans and Luigi, Jon and Pat arc hurried about by the attendants through the complicated labyrinth leading to freedom. They obey the signs, gestures, and exhortations of the attendants as dumbly as cattle, and as patiently. They file up the steep, narrow staircase of the main building to the long aisles where they are questioned by the registry clerks, to whom the dull routine of business has robbed the process of any appearance of interest.

But one would like to look behind those stolid faces down into the frightened, throbbing hearts, and sound the depths of emotion that must pervade them at what is to many the most momentous occasion of their lives.

With little or no interest they answer the twenty questions Uncle Sam puts before he decides whether he will adopt them or not : name, age—and even the women don't lie—married or single, occupation, education, nationality, destination, amount of money, friend's or relative's name and address, ever imprisoned, whether under contract to labor, and whether physically or mentally incapacitated, whether deformed or crippled.

A continual hum, like that of a mammoth beehive, goes on ; but the trouble of the guards does not commence until their charges catch sight of the friends and relatives at the other end of the long room, who have been waiting, perhaps for hours, for their arrival.

With every incoming steamer there is a demand on the steamship company for passes to the island. It is amusing to note the difference between the new arrival and the friends. Among the women the dress shows the degree of prosperity that has been met with in the new land. The colored 'kerchief has been replaced by a wonderful creation in millinery, where yellow and purple predominate.

A great deal of cheap lace, not over-clean, ornaments the waist, and a poor unhappy No. 7 foot is squeezed into a No. 5 shoe. Visitors are not allowed to come into contact with the immigrant until the latter is finally disposed of by the authorities. As they catch sight of each other, however, their excitement knows no bounds.

Then the Babel of tongues begins. Smiles and tears are plentiful. They shriek all sorts of questions across the intervening space, lean far out over the railing, yelling and gesticulating, till the guard, who has lost flesh at his arduous task, more forcibly than politely pushes them back into some semblance of order. When finally they meet, to colder, less demonstrative eyes the scene is touching.

Frenchmen fall upon each other's necks and kiss with undisguised emotion. Even quiet Hans embraces his brother, who keeps the corner grocery, with half-hysterical " Mein Gotts ! " and " Du Heber Gotts!"

The warm-hearted Irish praise God heartily as they look through a mist of tears at the worn faces they saw last on the dear old sod. Only the phlegmatic English gaze calmly at their excited companions and unfamiliar surroundings, and hold on like grim death to their corded boxes.

In many instances husbands have been separated from wives and parents from children for many years, and fail to recognize each other at first. When their identity is made known they are clasped in each other's arms, and cling to their loved ones even while being urged out of the building and down to the ferry landing.

At the Battery the Italians have another delegation waiting to greet them, sometimes the throng numbers thousands and requires the united efforts of a squad of policemen stationed there to preserve order.

Dr. Egisto Rossi, who represents the Italian government as immigration agent at Ellis Island, attributes the extraordinary influx of Italians to three causes : the trouble Italy is having in Africa, the depressed financial condition of the country, and the glowing accounts that the Italian residents of this country are continually writing home to those expecting to come.

Dr. Rossi thinks, however, that the great rush is over now, as Italy's financial condition is improving, as evidenced by the loan of $140,000,000 which was floated a short time ago.

The Italian immigrant comes here to stay. There is positively no truth in the statement that his only desire is to amass a few thousand dollars and go home to sunny Italy to enjoy himself during the rest of his days. If he goes back at all it is to bring out some others of his family. The registers at the island prove these facts conclusively. The Italian immigrant has cast his lot in America, and he brings with him some very valuable qualities.

But it is when the immigrant leaves the Arizona, the ferryboat plying between the island and the city, and turns his face toward the busy streets teeming with bustle and excitement, that his real perplexities begin. He is then thrown on his own resources—given over by the government to the tender mercies of his friends, as it were.

Agencies that Help the Immigrants

But what of those who have no friends here, no relatives who have gained a foothold in the new land ?

The numerous emigrant homes along State Street, a minute's walk from the Battery, answer that question.

Years ago immigrants were the prey of dishonest and disreputable agents, or the victims of sharpers. Young girls who had left home with a song or a laugh on the lip, to hide an aching heart, were never heard from again. With promises of easy situations and large wages, which would enable them to send for the old folks, they were easily lured away to ruin. It was the recital of these abuses and the letters of inquiry that came to the churches that roused the interest of the citizen in the immigrant.

The Lutheran churches were the first to respond to the appeal. Twenty-five years ago the fifteen hundred congregations of that denomination in the United States and Canada united their interests and formed an association for the protection of immigrants, each congregation contributing to its support.

A house was rented just opposite Castle Garden, where the immigrants at that time were landed. A work was then begun which has proved of incalculable value to the many who have entered our gates.

At present, under the name of the " Lutheran Pilgrim House," it occupies one of the old-time mansions at No. 8 State Street. The house conducts a regular banking business for immigrants only ; for these German, Swedish, and Danish travellers are a thrifty people, and rarely land here without a little capital to start a home in the new land. Here tickets are purchased and letters written to intending immigrants, and in each letter a yellow slip is enclosed to serve as an identification to the officers of the association who are stationed at Ellis Island.

All those who wear the yellow slip in their hats are singled out. If they are going to New York they are put in charge of the missionary, who never leaves them until they are safely sheltered in the mission house. Good, clean beds arc furnished them for twenty-five cents a night, and plain, substantial meals at the same rate.

To those who have no money hospitality is freely extended, and help sand advice proffered as to their spiritual or bodily needs. They are kept there until their friends call for them or until they find employment. The house has accommodations for one hundred and thirty people, though it averages but fifteen a night.

For twenty years the " Norwegian Lutheran Emigrant Mission " has been connected with the " Lutheran Pilgrim House." Two doors east of the latter the Sisters of St. Agnes conduct the " St. Leo House," which is run very much on the same principles, with the exception that it was established for German Catholics only, though no one is refused its hospitality.

The same prices are charged, the same work is done. Guests for the Leo House wear a blue slip on their hats, and are greeted by kindly, alert Mr. Fredericks, who wears on his coat the large gold anchor of the St. Raphael Society. It is he who conducts the little bands of his countrymen to the Arizona and across the park to their temporary home.

The Leo House has been established for fifteen years, Bishop Wigger of Newark being its president. It is maintained by a fund made up of voluntary contributions of twenty-five cents a year or more from the laity.

With commendable forethought our German brethren generously contributed $50,000 toward the purchase of this emigrant home, thus enabling the reverend director to begin his good work practically free from debt.

Standing between these two German Homes is No. 7 State Street, the home for Irish immigrant girls. Originally, in 1803, this house was one of the handsomest residences in New York. These three houses are all that are left of a row of twelve that were built when State Street was the fashionable quarter of the city. No. 4 was occupied by J. Ogden, No. 6 by William Bayard, No. 12 by Samuel Cooper, and No. 7 by the well-known sugar merchant, Moses Rogers, all of whose names are closely identified with the city's growth.

Contributing as much, perhaps, to the welfare of the great metropolis is the good work that is being carried on there now by Father Henry, Father Cahill, and Father Brosnan, and their kind and trustworthy agent, Mr. Patrick McCool.

The object of the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, stated briefly, is as follows : to establish a Catholic Bureau under the charge of a priest for the purpose of protecting, counselling, and supplying information to the Catholic immigrants who land at Ellis Island ; to give them a temporary home while waiting for their friends or looking for employment, and to give them the comfort of a chapel.

It is owing to the suggestion of the Irish Colonization Society that, in 1883, this mission was established.

During the year 1882 there were 455450 immigrants landed at this port. Of that vast number it is terrifying to think of the percentage that came to harm. In May of that year a meeting of the Irish Colonization Society was held in Chicago. As a result of its discussion of the question, the late Bishop Ryan of Buffalo laid before Cardinal McCloskey of New York a plan for the amelioration of the condition of affairs, with the result of immediately establishing the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, with Father John Riordan at its head.

Father Riordan's first step toward the success he afterwards accomplished was to make a trip through the West, and establish bureaus of information in the cities of Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Omaha, Peoria, St. Paul, and Minneapolis, and have them work in harmony with his mission.

In the beginning his own private purse was his main reliance, but later on appeals to his many friends and to the charitably disposed enabled him to gather $16,000. With this he purchased No. 7 State Street. The borne once established, he devoted all his time to caring for the immigrants as they landed. The daily press recorded thousands of cases where his helping hand, held out just at the right moment, had saved many a girl from ruin.

Father Riordan continued his missionary work at Castle Garden until he died in 1887. During his four years of service he had harbored i8,800 immigrant girls. He kept a sharp lookout for all possible and positive dangers to innocent immigrant girls on board ship, and every offending steamship officer was made to feel the influence of the zealous priest.

Mr. McCool, to whose active sympathy and warm-hearted service thousands of girls can testify, speaks most favorably of the railroad employees on this side of the Atlantic, thus furnishing another proof of the inherent good qualities of the American man who makes it possible for a woman to travel from end to end of our broad land alone and unprotected and never be subjected to insult.

After Father Riordan's death he was succeeded by Father Kelly, who, however, was compelled to give up the work in a year from ill health. He was succeeded by Father Michael Callaghan, who was a life-long friend of Father Riordan's, and in manner, activity, and devotion to his work strongly resembled the earnest founder of the mission.

It was in the late Father Callaghan's time that the great Metropolitan Fair was held which netted to the mission the superb sum of forty-three thousand dollars, thus assuring its future. Father Callaghan's place has been ably filled by Father Michael Henry.

Ever since the foundation of the mission Mr. Patrick McCool has been its faithful and efficient secretary. His work is immense, receiving and answering on an average fifty letters a day, greeting the immigrant girls as they come in, directing the friends who come to find their sisters, their cousins, and their aunts ; but he brings to it a trained mind, a big, warm, Irish heart, and an inborn horror of the dangers which menace unprotected womanhood.

Next to the establishment of the mission itself, Father Riordan considered in importance its connection with the St. Vincent de Paul Societies throughout the Union. Fortunately he was able to accomplish this before he died, and the organization has extended to all the large cities of the United States.

No one outside those whose business it is to take special interest in the immigrant can form any idea of the necessity which demands the cooperation of the St. Vincent de Paul Societies. The number of immigrants landed in New York in a single year has reached half a million. Out of this number few have ever gone even a short distance from their homes until they entered the emigrant ship.

For the most part they are entirely ignorant of the difficulties attendant upon a journey from one of the rural districts in Ireland to such distant points as Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, and require to be directed at every step. It is only the good God, who watches even a sparrow's fall, who knows what would become of them but for these missions and their cooperators.*

The limited scope of an article precludes much discussion of the immigration problem. The Contract Labor Law, with its advantages and disadvantages, would require a paper to itself. The immense influx of Italians is a question that demands solution, and that promptly, as there is not a branch of manual labor in which they are not supplanting other laborers.

* Although intended primarily for Irish and Catholic immigrant girls, this Home is really undenominational in its work, and Father Henry and Mr. McCool greet in their kindly way many a lonely Protestant girl and care for her in the Home as carefully as for their own, the only distinction that is made being that the Protestant girls are never asked to attend the chapel services.

It is the ardent hope of these earnest workers that Father Riordan's ambition will some day be realized, and the golden cross above a spacious chapel will flash its welcome from far down the bay to the weary, homesick immigrant, and point out the spot to all where God's good work is being carried on.

These immigrants are not cared (or as efficiently as the Irish immigrant ; one reason being the fact that out of every hundred there are only five women, whereas among the Irish ninety per cent. of all who come here to-day are girls ranging from fifteen to forty years, some of whom have neither friend nor relative in this country.*

The law for deporting paupers, idiots, and cripples is strictly carried out. Not long ago a young man who was only a few hours off the ship was found in the street horribly intoxicated.

He was at once returned to Ellis Island, and the vessel that brought him had one unwilling passenger on her return trip. Sometimes this law and its enactment has its pathetic side, as in the case of the unfortunate Armenian recently, who had been a resident of the United States for seven years, and during that time had constantly sent remittances to his little family in unhappy Armenia. Some six months ago he went out to bring them here.

When he reached the frontier he could not, of course, enter his own country ; but he met " the wily Turk," who offered to convey his family out to him, taking all his money to do it. ' For months he waited, but in vain. No Turk, no money, no family. Fortunately, he thought, he had saved his own return ticket ; but when he reached Ellis Island he was deported as a pauper, though his old employer at Worcester, Mass., offered to pay his fare to that place, and would gladly take such a good workman back.

Five of his fellow-countrymen pledged themselves to his support until he found work, but the law was imperative and he was returned.

What phases of humanity, what little human tragedies, what comedies one sees in a day spent at Ellis Island ! But running through it all, like a silver thread, is the charity, the good will, the kindness of one for another, the purity of heart that holds out a helping hand to the stranger within our gates.

* For a few weeks lately two Franciscan priests from Baxter Street Church did all that energy, courage, and sympathy could do for their fellow-countrymen. But as all their expenses—and they are not light : letters, meals, telegrams, etc.—came out of their own small purses, they have been compelled to desist and leave the hordes of Catholic Italian immigrants unattended save by government officials.

Source: Sweeney, Helen H., "Handling The Immigrant at Ellis Island", The Catholic World, Vol LXIII, No. 376, July 1896.

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