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Commonwealth Pier as a Joint Passenger Terminal at the Port of Boston (1916)

Of equal importance with the transfer of freight between land and water carriers is the provision made for the transfer of passengers.

Why Boston must seek passengers

There are several reasons why Boston should pay particular attention to this matter. Passengers are much more sensitive than freight to every inconvenience experienced in transfer. Boston’s advantage in its situation near Europe is neutralized, so far as western freight is concerned, by the action of differential (lower) inland rates accorded to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newport News, Portland, St. John and Montreal. The strongest effort must be made to provide steamship lines at Boston with passenger earnings to compensate them for the lower freight earnings that the inland differentials impose.

The opportunity

Finally, it is possible here, as perhaps nowhere else on the North Atlantic coast, to provide for direct interchange of passengers, at least steerage passengers, between cars and vessels. This, however, is not the method at present followed. At the present time, every Boston transatlantic pier handling a passenger steamer has its own layout, where immigrants may be examined and admitted to the country.

If rejected or detained for further examination, they are sent to the present inadequate detention station on the end of Long Wharf. If there are enough admitted immigrants destined to points west of the Hudson River to justify making up a passenger train at the steamer pier, such a train is made up. However, it is not always that this occurs.

Half the time the westbound immigrants, like those for New England, are carted to the railroad stations and there put into their cars. Similarly, through trains are run from the West to a steamer pier when there are enough western third-class passengers sailing by a Boston steamer to justify a special train. This has occurred, however, only in connection with Christmas sailings, particularly those of the Cunard Line, for which trains of Scandinavian third class passengers are run from the Northwest. Most third-class travelers destined for Boston sailings come into Boston passenger stations on the regular Boston trains, and find their own way to the piers.

Practice at Ellis Island

It is instructive to compare this situation with that at New York. In New York no immigrants are examined at the steamer pier. Every steamship loads its immigrants into barges that carry them to Ellis Island, the United States Immigration Station. It is thus a joint immigration station for all lines. There are eight trunk lines operating west from Jersey City—the Pennsylvania, West Shore, Delaware, Lackawanna & Western, Lehigh Valley, Erie, Ontario & Western, Baltimore & Ohio, Jersey Central.

Successively, each of these roads is assigned a day on which it has the transportation of all westbound immigrants from Ellis Island. As fast as a group of immigrants is examined and admitted, they are taken to the joint railroad waiting room at Ellis Island, where they exchange their railroad orders for railroad tickets. Then, as soon as a barge load of them has accumulated, they are floated up to the Jersey City terminal of the road of the day. (Note 1)

By evening enough immigrants have been brought to the Jersey railroad station to make up one or more direct immigrant trains. A daily special immigrant train to the West is made possible by the concentration upon that train of all westbound immigrants arriving in New York that day.

Concentrated examination

This convenience and economy for railroad and steamship lines in the handling of immigrants is of course a by-product of the establishment of the Immigration Station at Ellis Island; it is not the object which Ellis Island was designed to serve. Ellis Island was built in order to concentrate at one point the Government‘s handling of all New York immigrants. They are brought to the immigration officers. The latter do not, as in Boston and Philadelphia, disperse themselves over all passenger steamship piers in the port and examine the immigrants where the vessels dock.

It is realized that as the immigrant business of Philadelphia and Boston grows, it will be necessary to have an immigration station at each of these ports, where will be concentrated the examination and detention of all immigrants. Such stations are now slowly under way. The Ellis Island station consists of four parts—offices, examination quarters, detention quarters and hospital quarters. Hospital quarters are not planned for the Boston or Philadelphia stations, which will continue to send cases of sickness to city hospitals.

The Philadelphia station

At Philadelphia $100,000 has been spent by the Government in acquiring a site for an immigration station. This sum bought an estate, including a house, in Gloucester, N. J. The residence is used as an administration building. One hundred thousand dollars more has been spent on the construction of a detention station; $100,000 more has gone to construct a wharf which will contain examination rooms for immigrants, who must all be barged there by the steamship companies.

An appropriation of $55,000 is still unspent; $23,000 more has been asked of Congress. This $88,000 will suffice to shed the immigrant wharf. There is no present intention of applying for a government appropriation for the construction of a hospital. In 1914 it seems likely that within two years the Philadelphia Immigrant Station will be in complete operation. It is many years since the first active steps were taken towards its building.

The Boston station

In the meantime, no constructive step has been taken at Boston. For $30,000 a site was acquired at East Boston. Local interests were not satisfied with this location, so the Government was persuaded to exchange it for another site, paying about $35,000 additional therefore. Plans were approved by the Treasury Department for the construction of an immigration station on the site chosen, on a total appropriation of $250,000 secured from Congress. It was then discovered that the appropriation was insufficient to carry out the plans. Massachusetts's congressmen have asked an, additional appropriation, bringing the total up to $375,000.

Judging from the many years it took to get the new Philadelphia immigration quarters, whose completion is still probably two years away, viewing the method in which the rebuilding of the Boston Customs House has proceeded, and recalling the manner in which government contracts are usually carried out, it is not easy to imagine an early completion of the needed Boston Immigration Station.

Cunard Wharf, East Boston, Circa 1915

Cunard Wharf, East Boston, circa 1915

BRB&L Railroad yard, East Boston, circa 1910

BRB&L Railroad yard, East Boston, circa 1910

Suggested station on Commonwealth Pier

It is here suggested that such an immigration station be fitted up for the United States Government on a part of the second floor of Commonwealth Pier. (Note 2) There are three second floor spaces—the second floors of the middle and of the two outer sheds. The second floor of the middle shed is connected by a viaduct with Summer Street, which crosses the South Boston freight yards at an elevation. (Note 3)

This middle shed has been fitted up with accommodations for the customs examination of first- and second-class passengers, and with large examination rooms for the third-class passengers. These examination rooms are large enough to take care of all immigrant passengers arriving in Boston.

What a station consists of

The Boston Immigration Station should consist of office rooms, detention quarters and examination quarters. Whether now proposed by the Boston immigration authorities or not, centralized examination of all immigrants will be necessary as soon as the Boston immigrant movement advances materially beyond its present proportions.

The Philadelphia station recognizes this necessity and provides for it in its immigration station; the Boston station should do the same. Examination rooms already exist at Commonwealth Pier. It would be a simple matter to fit up offices and detention rooms on a part of the second floor of one of the outer sheds. The immigrants detained would pass from the examination rooms directly across a bridge (Note 4) to the detention station.

The fact that the sheds are separate provides for complete isolation of detention quarters from the rest of the pier. No sick cases will ever be harbored in these detention quarters. It is well known that the third-class examination rooms are separated from the accommodations for first- and second-class passengers. The latter would have no cause to know that there was a detention station on one of the other sheds of the pier; and not the slightest cause to fear it if they did know.

Fitting up offices and detention quarters to please the immigration service would involve only the laying of floors and partitions, perhaps the provision of extra windows, and an extension of the present water and lighting connections and heating plant already serving the second floor of the middle shed.

It was once proposed that an immigration station should be constructed for the Government on the second floor of the Leyland Line Pier in the Boston & Albany terminals at East Boston. The proposition failed because of the unwillingness of the Government to lease such quarters from a private railroad company. No such difficulty would arise in devising a proper form of co-operation between the State of Massachusetts and the Federal Government.

Advantages of plan

There would be several desirable results of such an arrangement. The Government would be provided with roomy quarters, all on one floor, far more convenient to operate than quarters that can be constructed on the very narrow piece of land acquired at East Boston. The location at South Boston is one much more accessible to the immigration officials.

Within a few months these quarters at South Boston can be provided. The proposed immigration station should largely reduce the present heavy expense entailed by a dispersed immigration service. The saving, instead of beginning five or ten years from now, could begin at once. The Port Directors would receive substantial additional revenue from Commonwealth Pier. The large space on present piers now occupied by this multiplicity of examination and waiting rooms would become available for freight or storage purposes.

Convenience of location

Assuming that conditions existing before the war will be resumed when it is over, three of the principal immigrant lines in the port will then be berthed at Commonwealth Pier—the Hamburg-American, the White Star-Liverpool, and the White Star-Mediterranean services. No other one location for an immigrant station will serve directly so many arriving immigrants as a location on Commonwealth Pier.

Consolidate there the immigrants from other lines and they are in the most accessible location in the port of Boston, both with regard to direct loading of immigrant trains for the West, and with regard to carting the immigrants to the Boston railroad stations. Immigrants destined for New England will continue to be so handled. The location chosen at East Boston is not one that can have direct railroad connection, for it is east of the Boston, Revere Beach & Lynn Railroad. (Note 5)

Attractions for immigrants

From the Commonwealth Pier the New England immigrants would be carted over the viaduct to Summer Street and so to South or North Station. The westbound immigrants would descend the stairs to the train waiting on the first floor of the middle shed. Though there might not every day be enough immigrants to form a western train, one could be made up very frequently, especially in the summer months, when the tide of immigration is running heavy.

The New Haven, Boston & Albany and Boston & Maine could alternate in running trains to the West. This is what they have already been doing in the case of immigrants of the Hamburg-American Line landing at Commonwealth Pier; each road has assigned to it every third boat, and, for that boat, runs a through train to the West.

Philadelphia’s mistake

Philadelphia has made the great mistake of marooning its immigration station three miles down the Delaware River, on the New Jersey side. Immigrants must be barged down there and then barged back again, in order to get to the railroad stations and be on their way to the interior.

The immigrant appreciates convenience just as any one else does. He writes back home of the comfort with which he is at Boston transferred from vessel to car. Later, when returning home for the winter, he sails from Boston. When he buys prepaid tickets for the family left on the other side, he buys them on a steamer sailing to Boston. No one thing can do more to interest steamship lines in this port than to make it attractive to third-class travelers. The money in the North Atlantic trade is made in carrying immigrants.

The pier a landing stage

There is at the outer end of Commonwealth Pier a berth 400 feet long, available for the use of any steamship that may want to land its passengers there. All Boston transatlantic passenger lines not berthing at Commonwealth Pier should be invited to stop at this end berth for the hour necessary to land or take on passengers of all classes, and mails, in- and out-bound. The berth would thus serve as a union passenger station, or landing stage, such as the Prince ‘s Landing Stage at Liverpool or the Landing Stage at Tillbury Docks, London, each used’ jointly by all steamship lines.

Advantages for steamship lines

There are reasons why the Boston lines not now using Commonwealth Pier might be glad to take advantage of such an offer. The berth is so situated that it could be reached with ease and with no danger, involving only a slight change in the vessel ‘s course, inward or outward. To stop there inbound would save the vessel the cost of barging or carting immigrants to the immigration station at Commonwealth Pier, and save the immigrants the inconvenience of being so transferred.

The steamship line would have thrown open to it the splendid, accessible first- and second-class passenger accommodations of Commonwealth Pier. If all Boston lines will agree to use this as a passenger terminal, then, in the joint advertising which should be undertaken, the simplest directions can be issued for prospective travelers, for all would sail to or from Commonwealth Pier. A landing stage, such as this pier will be, would be an attraction towards Boston whose effect would be countrywide.

Practicability of plan

It does not seem impracticable for even the Cunard boats to make the call. Inbound, these boats must turn at right angles before entering their berth at East Boston. It would seem to be little more difficult to make this turn after lying for an hour along the end of Commonwealth Pier than to make it upon entering directly from the sea.

In the crowded waters of the Hudson River at New York, with its heavy currents, steamers of 10,000 to 11,000 tons, like the "Creole" of the Southern Pacific ‘s New Orleans service, and the "Cristobal" of the Panama Canal Steamship Company, use different piers for inward and outward cargo.

In either case the shift involves taking these vessels out into the Hudson River and towing them to the outward pier. The "Cristobal," 11,000 tons, discharges at Pier 52 and proceeds to Pier 67 to load. It would not seem an insuperable difficulty to move a vessel of any size across the quiet waters of Boston harbor.

Pullman service to pier

Prior to the war the Hamburg-American Line announced that when the number of passengers justified so doing it would run a Pullman from Chicago and one on the midnight train from New York, to be switched at Boston to Commonwealth Pier and connect with the Hamburg-American sailings.

The Boston & Albany and New Haven roads are perfectly willing to put on a Pullman either eastbound or westbound, at any time, if a minimum number of passengers present themselves. If all lines were using Commonwealth Pier it would be simple to arrange to have all first- and second-class passengers from New York or the West, sailing from Boston on a single day, given the opportunity of using Pullmans run from New York and the West to the ship ‘s side on that day.

That is, there would be Port of Boston Pullmans run on the important sailing days of the year. It is not impossible that the plan would work so well that the steamship lines would arrange to have their sailings more frequently fall on the same day. Similarly westbound; by wireless the first- and second-class passengers on all lines arriving on a given day could be notified of the opportunity of taking Pullmans for New York and the West at the ship ‘s side.

At the pier they would find awaiting them enough cars to accommodate them. These cars would be switched to South Station during the evening, and would be put into the Boston & Albany evening train for the West, or the New Haven ‘s midnight train for New York. A first-class restaurant upon the pier would be necessary to the success of this plan, but one is sure to be provided if the passenger business of the port is consolidated there, to serve travelers and their friends.

Unique features of plan

The convenience of such arrangements can be understood by any one who has traveled abroad and has debarked at Liverpool, Tillbury, Southampton, Cuxhaven or Bremerhaven, directly into a train for the interior. The convenience would appeal particularly to elderly persons, women traveling alone or persons traveling with families. For all these people, in addition to the comfort offered them, there would be the not inconsiderable saving of the cost of being transferred from railroad station to ship.

Manhattan, located across the river from the railroads, can never have such facilities for contact between passenger car and ship. For first-and second-class travelers, this contact is now made in this country only by the Canadian Pacific Railroad at Quebec, where Canadian Pacific trains, one of them a transcontinental, meet the "Empress" steamers of the Canadian Pacific’s Liverpool service.’ (Note 6)

(Note 1)This barging from Ellis Island costs the railroads an average of 10¢ per passenger. It is fair to assume that the cost to the steamship companies of barging passengers to the island is the same. Return

(Note 2)Commonwealth Pier is 1,200 feet long and 400 feet wide. It is covered by three two-story concrete sheds, so connected as to form practically one continuous shed. The location of Commonwealth Pier is shown on Plan B, below. Return

PlateA_BostonHarbor.jpg (63370 bytes) Plan B, a diagrammatic modification of plan A is intended to show the sections of the waterfront, intermediate and outer belt lines at Boston, and the parts they play, or can play, in the coordination of interchange between railroads or between railroads and water carriers.

(Note 3)Summer Street crossing South Boston at an elevation is seen in the panorama of South Boston terminals, (see below). Return

RailroadTerminalsAndPiersAtSouthBoston1915.jpg (59863 bytes)

Railroad Terminals and Piers at South Boston, circa 1915

(Note 4)Connecting the second stories of the three pier sheds. Return

(Note 5)This road terminates at grade at a ferry house to the east of the Boston & Albany. See Plan B, above. Return

(Note 6)If a universal use by the Boston lines of Commonwealth Pier as a landing stage came to pass, it would probably be necessary to enlarge the present first- and second-class passenger accommodations on the second floor of the middle shed, extending them to include a small part of the second floor of the outer shed not occupied by the Immigration Station. The rest of this second floor should be devoted to another purpose.

Commonwealth Pier is a terminal, not a pier in the ordinary sense of the word. After the war, there will be three transatlantic lines discharging cargo upon it: the Hamburg-American Line, the White Star from Liverpool, the White Star from the Mediterranean. No terminal is complete without a warehouse to store free of bonded goods that are not destined for immediate shipment inland. No other terminal is without such a warehouse; both the Boston & Albany and Boston & Maine roads operate warehouses at East Boston and Charlestown respectively.

The second story of an outer shed of Commonwealth Pier contains 100,000 square feet of floor space; enough, if divided into bonded and free stores, to amply care for warehoused cargo of the three lines. The establishment of such a free and bonded warehouse, caring for stored import freight, would be another step towards making the Pier self-supporting, in addition to being a convenience to the steamship lines and their shippers.

The East Boston warehouse of the Boston & Albany is a separate building of permanent fireproof construction. Its accounts are kept separately, and it is charged with a loading and switching charge on all freight taken to it from the Boston & Albany Piers. Yet it is fairly profitable. The warehouse on Commonwealth Pier would be instituted by merely putting up partitions in a fireproof building already constructed and supplied with water and lighting connections, and a heating plant capable of expansion.

There wilt be no loading or switching charge to absorb to get goods from the Pier to the warehouse; these goods would come up in freight elevators already constructed, elevators whose prospective use otherwise would not be easy to describe. Therefore, the Commonwealth Pier warehouse would be a profitable thing. The State should not operate a warehouse, but should re-fit the space for such quarters and lease them for operation. The initial storage and profits of the business would be increased as more oversea piers are built at South Boston, the stored import freight from these piers to be switched over to the warehouse at Commonwealth Pier.  

Source: ChapterXVII, The Port of Boston: A Study and A Solution of the Traffic and Operating Problems of Boston, and its Place in the Competition of the North Atlantic Seaports by Edwin J. Clapp, Professor of Economics, New York University, Published by the Yale University Press, © 1916. Pages 297-308

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