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Ellis Island: The Great Gateway to America - 1899

The Board of Inquiry. The Men Who Pass Upon the Eligibility of Immigrants to Become Americans.

The Board of Inquiry. The Men Who Pass Upon the Eligibility of Immigrants to Become Americans. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c0091008

From 16 June 1897, until Ellis Island reopened in December 1900, immigrants landed at the Barge Office in New York. During the rebuilding of Ellis Island after the fire of 1897, immigrants were processed at the Barge Office. A ship, The "Narragansett," was employed to house immigrants that were temporarily detained. This article documents the time immigrants were processed at the Barge Office.

The foreigner who seeks to become a resident or citizen of this great modern Republic does not find the latch-string on the outside, except he is mentally sound, morally in good health, physically healthy, and to a certain extent in good financial condition.

In other words, he must have a certain amount of money with which to make his way in a new community; he must be physically able to perform such labor as any stranger may be required to do to earn a living, so that the immigrant may not become a public charge on the community he enters.

The conditions which the law provides should be easy enough for the average immigrant to comply with. Still, it is apparent enough, when one looks into the detention section at the Barge Office in New York, that too many ignorant men and women conclude that all that is necessary to grasp a fortune in America is to buy a steamship ticket, wrap a few articles of clothing in a big handkerchief, and embark for these shores.

Hundreds of shiftless men and more shiftless women find the doors of the great, free country barred against them, grumble at the care the nation takes in selecting its citizens, and go back to resume a shiftless career in some of the older countries of Europe.

Hon. Thomas J. Fitchie, United States Commissioner of Immigration, Port Of New York.

Hon. Thomas J. Fitchie, United States Commissioner of Immigration, Port Of New York. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c00a6d74

The Board of Inquiry at the Barge Office notes some pathetic tales in the records of its investigations. Still, the men who sit in judgment on the fitness of immigrants can take no account of the pathetic side. They are acting as impartial guardians of the welfare of American society, and they must act without regard to the feelings of others.

A pitiful case that shows the dense ignorance of the average immigrant was heard by the Board a few weeks ago. A French farmer had left behind him a home and a family and arrived in New York with a ticket to Montreal and forty cents in silver coins as his only earthly possessions.

Ordinarily, had he been possessed of more money, his story could have never been told, since the immigration officials are not seeking to guard Canada's welfare. There was a question, however, whether this poor fellow would ever reach his destination or be left a pauper in some American community.

Jean had listened to the sweet talk of a ticket agent. He had been told of the significant advantages of life in Canada. He was assured that he could make a living by chopping wood in winter and doing farm work in summer.

He had disposed of a part of his belongings and reached New York with nothing. Now he is probably making his way from Havre to his little farm, afoot and weary. The steamship company was compelled to return him to the port from whence he sailed but assumed no further responsibility.

Hon. E. F. McSweeney, Deputy Commissioner.

Hon. Edward F. McSweeney, Deputy Commissioner. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c019b239

But tales of poverty are not the only means used for breaking down the barriers that shut these foreigners out of America. There is a wealth of cunning wasted in the effort to overcome the law's objections to undesirable immigrants.

Detained women are called for by supposed husbands, who tell stories of long residence here, but who have probably reached Ellis Island on the same steamers as their alleged wives. Fortunately, the close inspection of this class of immigrants has resulted in the breaking up of the most terrible traffic in human slaves.

Hungarian Peasants Passing Through the Barge Office.

Hungarian Peasants Passing Through the Barge Office. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c0244f77

There is a many-sided interest attaching to the inspection and examination of immigrants at the Barge Office. The offices of Commissioner Fitchie and Deputy Commissioner McSweeney are continually besieged by relatives of incoming immigrants, and the Board of Inquiry, with its staff of interpreters and stenographers, accomplishes its work only by holding daily sessions that continue all day.

In and out of the little room occupied by the Board files a line of foreigners of all nations, all ages, and both sexes. The turbaned Turk elbows the Russian Jew, and the Greek in the dress of his native land follows a Slavonian giant as they answer the questions that are necessary under the law.

A Motley Group of All Nations Who Have Failed to Pass the Inquisitor Ordeal.

A Motley Group of All Nations Who Have Failed to Pass the Inquisitor Ordeal. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c09a8781

An unusual incident of a session of the Board a short time since was the examination of a Russian Jew, accompanied by his wife and seven children. The interpreter addressed each in Yiddish but was taken aback when a sixteen-year-old girl, apparently the head of the little family party, answered all in English and without hesitation.

That girl had previously spent five years in this country in the homes of her father's sisters, who, because of advantageous marriages and thrifty habits of life, had reached a state of opulence that appeared to stagger the recently arrived brother.

Two of these women, both handsomely dressed and bearing all the exterior indications of great prosperity, were admitted to the room after the examination of the Russian and his children.

The beadlike eyes of the head of the family danced in their sockets as he gazed at the silks and satins of his favored relatives, and he appeared to wonder how these two women might have been the girls who left him behind in Russia fifteen years ago.

Before the Board of Inquiry. A Russian Jew And Part of His Family of Eight.

Before the Board of Inquiry. A Russian Jew And Part of His Family of Eight. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c0a33d0b

The women unselfishly promised that their brother and his family would be carefully looked after in their new home, and the family party left the Barge Office to wonder at the greatness of a great metropolis in a new country.

All showed their evident pride, but the proudest of all was the girl of sixteen, the chief marshal of the invading army. Six months before she had gone from New York to Middle Russia, and in that six months, she had made all the arrangements for transporting brothers, sisters, father, and mother to a land where prospects are brighter and possibilities greater than elsewhere in this vast, wide world.

A Line of Immigrants at the Last Gate of The Barge Office.

A Line of Immigrants at the Last Gate of The Barge Office Where Immigration Officers Make Their Final Approval of Their Entrance Papers to the United States. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c0a7a654

Not so happy was the great giant Slav who took his turn before the inquisitors. He stood six feet, six inches high, and wore no coat. From his pockets hung a great tobacco pouch made from goatskin, a reminder of his home, and the ingenuity of some village artisan.

In the pocket of his waistcoat was a long-stemmed German pipe, a sort of badge of the genuineness of his story about his country.

He was, he said, a stonemason, but there was too evident an indication that he was bound for the Pennsylvania coal regions, where so many of his countrymen are making life wearisome for American workingmen, who find it hard to get living wages from their arduous work.

Eighty dollars had been the sole possession of this giant when he left his wife behind. It was spent on food and railway and steamship fares. He arrived in New York with his tobacco pouch well filled, but with nothing else of earthly value—not even a coat to shut out the cold. He took his turn among the detained division at Ellis Island and went back to Hungary on the steamer that brought him here.

These are a few incidents picked up at random in a day's visit to the Immigration Bureau. A dozen others, as hopeless in tone, might be cited, because the stories are told daily, and the ferryboat that brings the men and women from Ellis Island to the Battery is a busy craft, and the grind of business is ceaseless.

A Group of Russian Mennonites Who Have Just Passed the First Portals to American Citizenship.

A Group of Russian Mennonites Who Have Just Passed the First Portals to American Citizenship. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c0ade541

Some stories have a brighter side, as well as those with the darker in view. An Irishman with ten children, all ruddy-faced boys that will grow into strong and healthy men, was the happiest and most light-hearted man I saw; the little French farmer the most hopeless and helpless.

The Barge Office. The Immigrant's First View of The Metropolis Of New York.

The Barge Office. The Immigrant's First View of The Metropolis Of New York. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c0e4f3dc

The Irish, as a rule, are the happiest of all the immigrants who come, and the proportion of deportations among them is smaller. The English do not come in droves, but most of them get over the barrier in a comfortable fashion. I saw one fellow who was to be deported.

His Cockney brain could not comprehend the reason for his being sent away. He was dumbfounded when an attendant spoke to him in Yiddish, mistaking his nationality, and he talked of fraud in all its aspects, saying that he had produced forty dollars when called upon and had passed a proper physical examination. His appearance gave the lie to the latter assertion.

View of Ellis Island from the Bay.

View of Ellis Island from the Bay. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c0f8a71e

At present, while there are no buildings on Ellis Island, the cramped quarters at the Barge Office present some busy pictures. There are rush and bustle everywhere, and the divisions which separate the classes of immigrants according to the ruling of the officials are crowded on steamer days.

There is always a crowd of anxious relatives waiting at the front of the building, and the talented ticket agent—he who separates the immigrant from his money in exchange for passage to the Western States—is always in evidence. The lodging-house runner never sleeps, nor does he tire of telling tales about the luxurious entertainment his hostelry affords.

The Narragansett, On-Board of Which Immigrants Are Quartered.

The Narragansett, On-Board of Which Immigrants Are Quartered. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899.  GGA Image ID # 14c1015229

The confusion of tongues on the outside of the administration offices is fully equaled by the humming Babel in the divisions inside of the building, where are assembled the thousands of human beings landed from lately arrived ships.

But if the variety of language is confusing, the colors of the costumes of these strange folks are as bewildering in their ever-changing variety. A dozen Hungarian peasant women stand in line, awaiting the final official release to be made by the clerks at the gates.

Their heads are covered with handkerchiefs, and in great packs, apparently heavy loads even for an animal of burden, and hanging from their shoulders, are the earthly belongings of each. But they are a happy lot. They smile when spoken to and seem to enjoy thoroughly the experience of having crossed a sea for a home.

Women's Sleeping Quarters on The Narragansett.

Women's Sleeping Quarters on The Narragansett. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c10d4eb6

Stolid and self-possessed are the big Germans, who generally head family parties of from five to a dozen. There are in the German section individual immigrants who attract attention because of peculiarities of dress and manner. Separated from the big national groups, I saw one overgrown German boy who was a picture in himself.

He wore heavy hob-nailed boots, and clothes that had been all too evidently outgrown in the race between boy and tailor. The lad carried a great valise that would have taxed the strength of a steamship porter, and he stopped outside the building and mopped from under his peaked cap the sweat that rolled down his forehead.

He had been supplied, this lad, with two sources of comfort for his sojourn in a strange land. From the upper pocket of his coat protruded the long stem of a pipe that his grandfather might have smoked thirty years ago, and above the lower pocket there peeped the edges of a Bible bound in red and gold. With these and his health and strength, this boy entered American life from Battery Park as courageously as a general at the head of an invading army.

Immigrants Going Aboard the Narragansett.

Immigrants Going Aboard the Narragansett. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c18ba55b

It is different from the women who come to America unprotected and unaccompanied. The English-speaking girls are well cared for by an agent of the Mission of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. The young Irishwomen who arrive here intending to take domestic situations find temporary shelter in the home attached to the Mission, and the attachés attend to all of the work of buying railway tickets and forwarding baggage.

The terror of the moneychanger is no longer what it was for the immigrant. The money-changing business is conducted, in the building, and railway tickets are also sold there; so that to the wide-awake stranger there is little trouble or discomfort attached to getting into America and finding the way to his new home, no matter if it is on some small farm in the distant Northwest.

Many are the first tricks and devices resorted to by some of these strangers to guard against inconveniences, however. For the sake of keeping a family of ten together on their transcontinental tour, they were attached to each other with a long rope. Needless to say, they arrived on the South Dakota farm safe and sound and all at the same time.

The Kitchen on The Narragansett.

The Kitchen on The Narragansett. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c1abc96d

The quarters of the immigrant during the period that he passes in waiting for his final permission to land are impressive indeed. Since the burning of the buildings of the department at Ellis Island, the big Sound steamboat Narragansett has been moored at the island, and on this great vessel sleeping and eating quarters have been arranged —on one deck for the men and on the other for the women. The illustrations show how the immigrants live during their period of detention.

Within a few months, the new buildings on Ellis Island will be completed, and the facilities for introducing foreigners to America and American civilization will be more than ample to the passage through New York of a half-million immigrants every year.

The Men's Sleeping Quarters on The Narragansett.

The Men's Sleeping Quarters on The Narragansett. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c1b44a32

There is a reason for this endless coming and going between Ellis Island and the Barge Office, for the figures of the Immigration Department show that during the year ending in June last 218,562 immigrants arrived at American ports, of whom 178,748 landed at the port of New York to undergo the rigid system of investigation that holds sway with the Board of Inquiry.

In other words, an average of more than 500 immigrants arrived at the port of New York every day, not counting the fact that steamer days of the long lines are not coincident with the days of the week by any means. These figures give the idea that the work of the investigating officials is by no means an easy one.

A Slavonian Giant and a Russian of Ordinary Size.

A Slavonian Giant and a Russian of Ordinary Size. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c22e7bdc

Much mixed is the nationality of the men and women who seek their homes and fortunes in America. Italy leads in the number of immigrants, and it also results in all probability in the number of persons who, having amassed small fortunes, return to their European homes with never an idea of becoming citizens of the country that has helped them to positions of affluence.

Of all the European countries, Turkey furnished during the year the smallest number of immigrants, only 176 of the sultan's subjects having passed the ports of the country.

After Italy, Russia furnished the most significant number of immigrants. However, the total from that country was really exceeded by the combined contribution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Ireland sent 25,128 immigrants during the year, and it is a fair supposition that 20,000 of that number will remain in America and become citizens of the Republic.

The Launch "Samoset," Used by Officials.

The Launch "Samoset," Used by Officials. Metropolitan Magazine, February 1899. GGA Image ID # 14c303cd79

One of the requirements of the immigration law is that each immigrant of adult age shall be able to show at least thirty dollars in money or give other evidence of the fact that he is not likely to become a public charge. Twenty-seven thousand of these adults coming to America last year were possessed of more than thirty dollars each. Still, 96,000 of them had less than thirty dollars in their possession.

Some of these latter were, of course, deported, the eloquence of some steamship agent saddling the company with the necessity of giving the buyers of tickets an excursion trip for the price of one steerage fare.

One feature of the figures of the report of the Bureau that is interesting is that which shows the number of persons who have come to America to join relatives who have preceded them in the search for new homes and new fortunes.

The figures show that of the total number of immigrants of last year, there were of those belonging to this class 99,717. This indicates that the number of immigrants finding their new homes congenial is enormous, and it also shows that the prosperity for which they seek is frequently observed, else families would not have the necessary funds with which to pay for ocean passage to join the pioneer members.

Charles B. Smith, "The Great Gateway to America," in the Metropolitan Magazine, Vol. IX, No. 2, February 1899, pp. 129-138.

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