The tide of immigration ran high in 1850, but the 25 years before World War I brought a flood of them. There were almost 17 million arrivals from 1891 through 1915, which exceeded the total for the previous 70 years. By the 1890's immigration from prosperous western Europe was dropping from Germany and Britain, while it was rising from Italy, Russia and other parts of eastern Europe.

The 1910 census revealed that the states with the largest numbers of foreign born were Minnesota with 245,000 Scandinavians; Wisconsin with 235,000 Germans; Michigan with 175,000 Canadians; Illinois with 320,000 Germans, 165,000 Scandinavians and 150,000 Russians. Pennsylvania had 240,000 Russians, 195,000 Italians, 195,000 Germans, and 170,000 British. New York had 560,000 Russians, 470,000 Italians, 435,000 Germans, 370,000 Irish, and 195,000 British. Massachusetts had 295,000 Canadians and 225,000 Irish. Generally, 60-80% of all immigrants came from eight main groups.Lusitania

Transatlantic passenger ship RMS Lusitania of the Cunard Line - called the queen of the seas, who captured the coveted "Blue Riband" in 1907 and was in regular transatlantic passenger service since she was launched at the River Claud on June 16, 1906 until she sunk in 18 minutes on May 7, 1915 after being torpedoed by the German U-boat U-20 and 1,195 were lost. This image is on plates of the Finland Steamship Company's agents who advertised and sold tickets to emigrants.

The 1891 law placing immigration under federal control contained a provision that excluded people suffering from dangerous contagious diseases. Trachoma, a communicable eye affliction, was specially feared. Passengers preparing to debark would ask each other if they "looked sick in the eyes." They also worried about other ailments; whether sea-sickness was a disease, or would a child with a sty be torn from its family and sent back to Europe. Some people thought they had to pay something to the American inspector and doctor. They worried as to whether they had enough money to pay the officials.

The price of everyday life was high where the immigrants came from. In Italy there was a heavy tax on mules and donkeys. In Hungary they had to bribe to dodge military service; in Russia there was an exorbitant cost to secure a passport. During 19th century Russia, young Jewish boys were forced into military service for as long as 25 years. Some boys didn't want to give their lives to the Russian army, so they cut off their trigger finger, punctured eardrums or gave themselves a hernia. Some immigrants had never seen a wagon with wheels. Some Romanian villages had nothing made of iron. Some used their life savings to purchase one-way tickets to a destination they had only heard about. Having sold their few worldly possessions, they boarded a steamship with little more than the clothes on their backs and dreams in their heads. An immigrant said, "If America didn't exist, we would have to invent it for the sake of our survival."

Relatives in America sent prepaid passages and American "store clothes". The steamships cruised at 25 knots and had space for as many as 3,000 people. Trans-Atlantic fares dropped to $12 and the crossing took 10 days or less. In 1905 one could get cabin class for an extra $20. That $20 exempted a passenger from the scrutinies facing them on arrival in New York. Cabin class inspections were lax and some people took advantage of it: women of uncertain reputation, sickly children, and other "excludables." When the ship docked in New York, the cabin class set was released, but steerage passengers were subjected to endless delays. Some said, "Isn't it strange that we are coming to a country where there is complete equality, but not quite so for newly arrived immigrants."Ellis Island and Harbor


Ellis Island and Harbor, New York. Statue of Liberty at far left. Credit: American Memory collections from the Library of Congress.

Even the steerage passengers were lined up according to their appearance. The steampship companies were aware of their reputation so they placed prosperous-looking and respectable passengers in front. Behind them were women with handkerchiefs on their heads. They were followed by the more alien-looking in their best: Russians in matted sheepskins, Greeks in white kilts, etc. Whatever they wore, badges and labels were affixed to it. It seemed that all the officials in America wore special markings. A man with nautical insignia gave them a badge which was a bill of lading. Then a man who wore gold eagles gave them a badge with numbers that corresponded to their place on the ship's manifest. Tickets and vaccination cards were in the caps, hats or teeth of the immigrants whose hands were full of baggage and babies. Some officials gave them a rough shove, shouting in a dozen languages to hurry. They hurried, and then waited - sometimes for hours - aboard barges.

The first passenger to pass through the doors of Ellis Island in 1892 was given a ten-dollar gold piece. She was Annie Moore from County Cork. The busiest year was 1907 with 866,660 immigrants. On April 17, 11,747 people were processed. On May 2, 1907, 11 ships arrived with 16,209 passengers and four more ships arrived, making the total number of passengers 21,775. At such times, immigrants often had to remain aboard ship for two or three days. There were so many immigrants to process that the staff couldn't spend more than two minutes with each of them,and they had to work nine hours continuously. There were never enough interpreters. Fiorello LaGuardia, future mayor of New York, was an interpreter - he spoke Croatian, Italian and German. He said they had to work seven days a week for two years.

Private concessionaires at Ellis Island profited, such as bakers who suppied seven tons of bread each day. Railroad ticket sellers took in as much as $560,000 a week. Profits soared when immigrants were served meals consisting of prunes on bread. German immigrants were deceived by bright new pennies and they exchanged their 20-mark German piece worth $4.75 in 1904 for a handful of shiny pennies.

Immigrants entered the main building in groups of 30, then marched to a wide, steep staircase. It was an inconvenience for the immigrant who had to carry a feather bed, pillow, wicker basket and maybe a small trunk. While the immigrants were struggling up the stairs, medical inspectors stood looking down at them. If anyone gasped or seemed faint of heart, the letter H was chalked on his back. Medical examiners eyed them from head to toe. If a child was carried, but looked old enough to walk, examiners suspected infantile paralysis. More chalk marks were added: B for back, L for lameness, etc. Elaborate hairdos were a suspicious sign of scalp ailments. Lice were commonplace, but didn't rate a chalk mark. "Eye' men flipped back eyelids with buttonhooks looking for trachoma, whose victims were usually deported. During stringent mental exams doctors looked for symptoms of retardation, such as tremor of tongue, biting nails unusual decoration on the clothing, etc. The immigrants who were marked by X were led away for closer observation. That yielded detailed notes, such as: "hearbeats rapidly when talking to strangers." "He fell in love with a young lady on board ship. She did not reciprocate."

If the doctor cleared them, people then went to the huge Registry Room. Thousands of people lined up in winding rows to the immigration inspector who sat behind a big desk on a high platform, under a portrait of George Washington and an American flag. An intimidating sight to the immigrant.

There were many questions, many fears. What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you have any relatives in the United States? How much money did you bring? Do you have any physical or mental health problems? What is your height? Your weight? Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist? Some of this information is contained on the one line for each passenger on a ship's manifest. The manifests with the names and records of our ancestors are the history of the populating of America during this period.

Some immigrants passed into America with their names intact. Many didn't. Names were often misspelled or altered on the manifests. Immigrants sometimes shortened their names or Americanized them. Sometimes the officials "helped" them. Thus, Portnovsky became Porter, Schmidt became Smith, Goldstein became Gold.Immigrants

When the immigrants were asked where they were going, it took ingenuity to decipher the replies. "Szekenevno Pillsburs" was Second Avenue, Pittsburg. One newcomer said "Springfield." "Which Springfield?" "The cheapest one."

Immigrants from "Prinzess Irene" going to Ellis Island. Credit: American Memory collections from the Library of Congress.

Four out of five immigrants were free to go their way. Some of the rest received a white badge - temporarily detained while awaiting relatives or money. The detainees called Ellis Island the "Isle of Tears." An inspector stated he had seen many jails, some pretty bad. But none as bad as the dormitories on Ellis Island where detainees had to wait.

Those who were detained were given an interpreter and could call in a medical specialist for a second opinion. That's what one woman did who was certified to be of low intelligence because she couldn't work the jigsaw puzzles the doctors gave her. She told them if they gave her some meat she would make a delicious soup for them, and bake bread better than they served on Ellis Island. She was admitted. Often the elderly did not fare so well. A Serbian peasant who was over 50 and not strongly built was not admitted.

The saddest cases were the Jews who had family ties in the United States and who would face persecution if deported. One case involved a father who was a tailor and his son who was a student. The father was asked if he would be willing to go back and leave his son in the United States. The father who was used to self-denial, tragically agreed. The son agreed and said, "The one shall be taken and the other left." It was their judgment day.Detained immigrants

Detained immigrants on Ellis Island, New York harbor / Drawn by M. Colin. Illus. in: Harper's weekly, 1893 Aug. 26, p. 821 Credit: American Memory collections from the Library of Congress.

The introduction to American life was terrifying to some, and fun for others. An Italian child who had never seen running water was suddenly made to take a shower. Two men were impressed by bed springs - they had never seen them before. All night long they bounced up and down on it for fun. The mixture of ethnic groups angered some people. At dawn a Turk wakened people with his Muslim prayers. And Englishmen complained of being in a room with Italians who were eating garlic. In the mess hall it was impossible to suit the palates of 60 different national tastes. They would all eat kosher meat and Italian bread. But Italians wouldn't eat oatmeal, Scandinavians disliked spaghetti, and 30 Muslims ate nothing but boiled eggs. Everyone sampled ice cream, bananas (skin and all), and corn-on-the-cob (considered barnyard fodder in Europe).

In 1914 deportations rose to 16,588 people. Several hundred chose suicide to deportation. Echoes of happiness and grief, despair and triumph haunt the halls of Ellis Island's empty buildings. There was the "kissing post" where families were reunited, and the "stairway of separation." From it, one passage led to the railroad ferry, another to the boat for Manhattan, and the third to detention and possible deportation. For some people it was a joy; if nothing was wrong with them they went with their families. For those not admitted, there was heartbreak and desolation.

Excerpts from "LIBERTY" by Leslie Allen

June Pelo



Departure of emigrants