Day of Arrival
The steerage is awake after its restless night and mutely awaits the disclosures of its own and the new world's secrets. The sound of a booming gun is carried across the hidden space, and faint touches of flame struggling through the gray, are the sun's answer to the salute from Governor's Island.
The morning breeze, like a " Dancing Psaltress," moves gently over the glassy surface of the water, lifts the fog higher and higher, tearing it into a thousand fleecy shreds, and the far things have come near and the hidden things have been revealed.
The sky line straight ahead, assaulted by a thousand towering shafts, looking like a challenge to the strong, and a warning to the weak, makes all of us tremble from an unknown fear.
Steamship traffic near the Statue of Liberty, New York circa 1891. Photo by Berthaud. Courtesy of the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives, Martime Collection.
The steerage is still mute; it looks to the left at the populous shore, to the right at the green stretches of Long Island, and again straight ahead at the mighty city.
Slowly the ship glides into the harbour, and when it passes under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the silence is broken, and a thousand hands are outstretched in greeting to this new divinity into whose keeping they now entrust themselves.
Some day a great poet will arise among us, who, catching the inspiration of that moment will be able to put into words these surging emotions; who will be great enough to feel beating against his own soul and give utterance to, the thousand varying notes which are felt and never sounded.
On this very ship are women who have left the burdens which crippled them, and now hope to walk erect; who have fled from the rough, polluting hands of persecuting mobs, that they may be able to guard their virtue and have it guarded by gallant men.
Here are hundreds of Slays who never knew aught but the yoke of czar or other potentate, whose minds have been enthralled by a galling autocracy, and whose closed eyes have never been permitted to see their own downtrodden strength. Now they shall have the opportunity to prove themselves and show the nobility of a peasant race.
Here are Italians from shores where classic art is stored, and the air is soft and full of melody; yet they were left uncouth, rough and unhewn. They come to a rougher but freer air, that they may grow into a gentler, stronger, nobler manhood and womanhood.
Melancholy Jews whose feet never knew a safe abiding place, are here, and their hope is that they may find the peace which went out from their race, when Jerusalem was laid waste and they were scattered among the nations of the earth.
He who thinks that these people scent but the dollars which lie in our treasury, is mightily mistaken, and he who says that they come without ideals has no knowledge of the children of men.
I found myself close to hundreds of these people, closest to the Russian Jews who most excited my sympathies; and one day when they heard that I had been in Bialistok, Kishinef and Odessa, that I knew the horror of it all and that I sympathized with them, they crowded around me almost like wild animals. What did they ask for above everything ? Money ?
No. The one loud cry was for a speech about America. " Preach to us," they said, " preach to us about America." It was a polyglot sermon which I preached that Sunday from the covered hatch which was my pulpit, and when I spoke to them of their new home and their new duties, they cheered me to the echo.
I have passed through this gateway more than ten times; I have sounded as far as a man can sound, the souls of men and women, and I have found them tingling from emotions, akin only to those which we more prosperous voyagers shall feel, when we have crossed the last sea and find ourselves in the presence of the great Judge.
Many of these emigrants expect to find more liberty, more justice, and more equitable law than we ourselves enjoy; they imagine that our common life is permeated by a noble idealism; and while they cannot give expression to their high anticipations they feel more loftily than we think them capable of feeling.
Many a time I have heard conversations between those who had read about America and those who were ignorant of its life, and invariably I have had to keep silence; for had I spoken I must have destroyed blessed illusions.
From the very people whom we call Sabbath breakers, I have heard glowing descriptions of an ideal American Sabbath, and from men to whom alcoholic beverages seemed essential to life, I have heard a defense of laws regulating the sale of liquor. If, in our superficial touch with them in our own country, we find them materialistic and dulled to what we call our higher life, they are not the only ones at fault.
Cabin and steerage passengers alike, soon find the poetry of the moment disturbed; for the quarantine and custom-house officials are on board, driving away the tourist's memories of the splendour of European capitals by their inquisitiveness as to his purchases.
They make him solemnly swear that he is not a smuggler, and upon landing, immediately proceed to prove that he is one.
The steerage passengers have before them more rigid examinations which may have vast consequences; so in spite of the joyous notes of the band, and the glad greetings shouted to and fro, they sink again into awe-struck and confused silence.
When the last cabin passenger has disappeared from the dock, the immigrants with their baggage are loaded into barges and taken to Ellis Island for their final examination.
Source: Steiner, Edward Alfred, On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1906