From the Pale to the Golden Land
Ellis Island: Port of Immigration

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Below is an article that appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the "New-York Tribune" on Jul 24, 1904:

The big ship is coming into the harbor. There are gay crowds on the wharf. There are smartly dressed women waving handkerchiefs and parasols, and men are flourishing canes and hats. Lined against the rails on the decks of the ship are tourists in all costumes. Three thousand miles they have sailed across the sea. Those who have come back to their native land look with longing eyes, and those who are strangers with wondering. The home-comers search in the crowds on the pier for the faces of loved ones, and cheery greetings are exchanged as the ship is being warped in by the busy tugs.

She is rubbing against the buffers now. The gangplanks are down. The tourists are streaming forth like an army of ants. Men and women are throwing themselves into one another's arms. Stevedores are driving in and out from the bowels of the leviathan, bringing to light steamer trunks, big chests, casks, boxes, bundles and bales of all sorts and sizes, which are being sorted rapidly, tapped and opened by keen-eyed and keen-witted customs inspectors.

On the lowermost deck, staring with wide-open eyes from behind the cordage netting, and peering from the portholes of the sea monster, taking in each detail of this jumble of debarkation, this festive homecoming, are the immigrants. It is their first contact with this new world, this land of freedom of which they have dreamed, but which is still so far away from them.

Then come the ominous-looking barges, filling many with the terrifying thought that they are to be deported, and then the trip across the harbor again to the bare walls of Ellis Island--half castle, half prison--A glimpse of tall buildings on the receding shore, a passing of ships flying the flags of all nations, and this America of fabulous story seems to fade from their view.


This great America that is so free is an anomaly to the immigrant who has just landed here. The stories that have been carried to him across the sea are like the folk-lore tales told to the children--a great deal of tinsel and fairy godmother. He expects a golden sunrise, but his ideals are shattered. Uncle Sam's inspectors are probers for prosaic facts. At every stopping place the immigrant is met by an interrogation point. He begins by being cautious. He finishes by losing his head and becoming wildly incoherent and foolish.

At Ellis Island, within whose detaining confines linger ninety per cent of the new-comers to the United States, the scenes of thousands of comedies and tragedies of all nations are enacted each time the ships come in. There were closed to a million of these comedies and tragedies last year. There will be close to a million of them this year. One hundred ships a month--ships whose steerages are loaded to the utmost capacity--one thousand, fifteen hundred, sometimes more--ply between New-York and foreign ports.

"The Immigrants," a painting by W. Benda.

From within the vast, black depths of these ships pour the men, the women and the children who are cast in the roles of these life dramas. On each apparently trivial query hangs their future fate as in a balance. Drilled on the other side as to the answers they shall make, cautioned against admitting this or denying that, imbued with the importance, first of all, of creating the impression that they are disease-free and self-sustaining, they meet all questions with a parry. Equivocation, hesitation, out-and-out lying, are the stumbling blocks that beset the paths of the inspectors.

In one of the temporary detention departments is an Irish Girl. She clings with her hands to the wire network, and presses her face close against it. A frightened look is in her eyes as she peers through the interstices at the men in blue uniforms and brass buttons, hurrying back and forth in the passageways, now stopping at other immigrants with the frightened looks, and putting to them quick, pointed interrogations.

One stops in front of the Irish girl. "What is your name?" he asks abruptly.

The girl stammers, "My name is Mary Watson, sir."

"How old are you, Mary?"

She hesitates. She is trying to recall the catechism in which she was so thoroughly drilled before she left the old home, and which she repeated so often to herself on the lonely voyage between the decks of the big steamer. She knew it well then. It has gone from her now. The inspector--to her imagination, some high and powerful official in this bewildering new land--is waiting.

"How old are you, Mary?" he repeats.

"I don't know, sir," replies the girl in helpless confusion, forgetting her lessons.

"What is your age?" persists the inspector.

"Oh, I am twenty-one, sir," she says, as she finally comprehends the man's meaning.

"Are you married or single?"

She blushes. "Oh, I am single, sir!"

"Where were you born?"

There is another hesitation, and another vain attempt to recall the categorical, suppositive and hypothetical questions and answers. The inspector is looking at her coldly and searchingly. He must be answered.

"Oh, sir, I was born in Ireland, sir," she says.

"Where are you going?"

"I am going to America, sir."

"To what city, to what town in America?"

" I am going to New-York, sir."

"To what address?"

The girl stares blankly at him.

"To what place in New-York, to what street?"

"Oh, sir. I am going to No. -- South Halsted-st., Chicago."

"Are you going to New-York or Chicago?"

"I am going to New-York, sir."

"Give me your address in New-York."

"No. --South Halsted-st., Chicago, sir."

"Then you are going to Chicago?"

"Yes sir; I am going to Chicago."

"How much money have you?"

Here is one of the dangerous points impressed upon her in the catechism.

"Ten pounds, sir," she replies.

"Show it to me."

"It's in my clothes, sir--in my bag."

"You'll have to show it."

"Sure, I haven't got ten pounds, sir. I have five pounds, sir."

"You'll have to let me see it, Mary."

"Sure, I spent most of it for expenses, sir. Sorry little have I left, sir."

"How much have you left?"

"Eleven shillings, sir," and she shows them.

A Hebrew is stopped in front of the desk of an inspector.

"Have you any money?" asks the inspector in Yiddish.

"Yes, yes; I have money, I have plenty of money," is the answer.

"How much money have you?"

"Oh, I have plenty of money, plenty, plenty."

"Yes, but I must know; you must show it to me."

"I can't show it to you; it is too far down in my pack."

"How much is in your pack? I must know."

"Ah! I have one hundred rubles."

"You will have to show them to me."

"I haven't one hundred rubles. I have only forty copecks."

Before the Board of Special Inquiry--that awful tribunal to detained aliens--stands Yousef Elfehiel, a Syrian from Belgravia. He stands with uncovered head, showing a shocky growth of black hair. His shoulders are bent forward. Every action betokens submission. He gazes in bewilderment at the three inspectors seated behind the long, stationary desk.

"What induced you to come to the United States?" asks one of the solemn judges.

An interpreter slowly propounds the query to him in the Arabic tongue.

"In view of the fact that my cousin is here, I risked coming in the hope of finding work," is the answer.

The Secretary of the Commissioner looks at the applicant's hands.

"He has the hands of a workingman," says the Secretary.

Then, turning to the inspector, he says, "Ask him: "' Was there not any work on the other side?'

"There was work," is the answer. Then, with a sign, the man adds, "But still, maybe, that is my fate."

"What do you mean by that remark?" queries the Secretary.

"I mean," says the Syrian, and there is sadness in his tone, "that maybe I am predestined to come to this country--I don't know."

"Did your cousin state that he had work prepared for you?" asks an inspector.


"What reason have you for thinking that you are predestined to come to the United States?" asks the Secretary.

"Because God has commanded that," says the Syrian with fervor.

"What else has God commanded you to do?"

"This is one of the things that has been ordered by God. I have noticed nothing else."

"Have you ever been to jail?"


"Or committed a crime in your country?"

"No. Be it forbidden that God should order such a thing!"

The unexpected answer brings a suspicion with it. Men have before claimed divine commands to commit dangerous deeds; so the Secretary asks pointedly:

"Is this the only command of God that you have received?"

The Syrian bows his head, and says softly:

"It would seem to be so."

For a moment there is silence in the board-room. Then the fate of this comer to the New World is voted upon.

"Admitted," is the verdict.

And the busy routine is resumed. It is only a passing incident. There are hundreds--yes, thousands, of such incidents at Ellis Island.


Three steamboats carrying three hundred passengers each, and three barges with a capacity of nine hundred each, convey the aliens to Ellis Island. They are packed on these boats as they are packed on the ship that brings them over. When they are landed on the dock on one side of the slip they are marched in procession into the big building, which, with its brick walls, its stone-flagged floors, its iron and stone stairways and its wire cages, is gloomy and disheartening.

As the new-comers pass up the broad stairs leading to the first story, they are stopped at the top of the landing one by one by an inspector who is on the medical staff. Now and then some impetuous immigrant tries to hurry on into one of the narrow alleys that are guarded on the sides by tall and stout wire nettings and lead off into straight lines across the great, open room occupying nearly the entire floor; but he is quickly stopped by a muscular arm.

"Hold on!" cries the inspector, and holding his captive in a strong grasp he rapidly runs his fingers through the mat-like hair of the foreigner. He is looking for scalp disease.

"Go on," he says, and as the man advances, the examiner watches the movement of his feet with a critical eye, searching for defects of the extremities.

The next moment he has another immigrant in hand, and then another and another, performing his work accurately and so rapidly that one can hardly follow his movements. Still, the crowds are coming up the stairs and pouring on through the ling, wire lanes in a seemingly endless stream. The nimble fingers of the inspector comb each head of the shocky hair; his eyes note each strange gait. The procession still unwinds itself as if from a great ball of yarn. Three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, six thousand in one day--that is the record.

It is a motley procession is this thread of immigration. Old men and young men carrying big canvas satchels and bags half the size of a trunk, stuffed to the bursting point; tottering old women with handkerchiefs on their heads, some in bare feet, some in felt slippers, some in boots, bending low beneath the burden or unwieldy bundles; young women, some with lines in their faces, like the old women, some with rosy cheeks, some leading little children by the hands and nursing others at the breast; young girls, some with hope, some with sorrow; young boys, some sturdy and bright, some weak and stupid--all wild-eyed, scared, confused--such is the procession that straggles up from the sea to Ellis Island.

There is a mixing of the nations within the compass of these somber walls--an international congress of world types. The army of picturesque dummies in one of the exhibitions could obtain new recruits fro this sartorial array from all lands and zones.

Onward they pass from doctor to doctor. And then come the Registry Division and the questions of the inspectors. After that there is a visit to the Money Exchange, where the immigrant's foreign coin is transformed so rapidly into the circulating medium of the United States, of whose value he knows nothing, that he cannot tell whether he has become a pauper or a millionaire. And then he passed sown the stairway that leads out to the ferry-boats and the railroads and the New World. With a tag stamped "O.K." on his breast, he takes his first step toward liberty, mingling with the thousands of other aliens in the big apartment, dazed, hesitating and wondering what is going to happen next.


But what of the alien who fails to pass the inspectors?

To all intents and purposes the one who is detained temporarily is as good as admitted; but he does not understand that. In nearly all cases he is detained for his own protection; until friends arrive, or until he receives money and directions where to go.

The situation of those who are excluded from the country is entirely different. In this case the men and women are separated in rooms in the basement. In these rooms may be seen all types of humanity.

An Italian brigand is standing in the corner dressed in the coarse clothing of his country gloomy and silent. There are other Italians not far away conversing in low tones to one another. They are held for violation of the contract labor law. There are Hebrews who are suspected of being unable to support themselves and thus becoming public charges. Hollow-eyed and solemn, with ragged toes and his bare clothes peeping out from shoes that scarcely hold together, is a Hindu, John Magnam. You will find his name on the record, and if you care to investigate you will learn that he came over as a helper with a ship-load of animals, was abandoned by those who brought him here, and deported as a pauper.

There, just on the other side of the room, is an old Russian with his old wife and middle-aged daughter who is not strong nor over-bright. The man is senile, the woman not capable of self-support, and there is but one course--deportation. A decrepit Scandinavian peers out of eyes that can hardly see. At the other end of the room is an old Englishman. He has the bearing and appearance of one upon whom prosperity formerly smiled. Now his clothing is ragged. "No visible means of support" is the record against his name on the books. In the women's apartment is an Irish woman with six children. She, too, with her brood, must go back.

But let us leave these unfortunate ones whose long journey across the sea has resulted only in a glimpse at the Statue of Liberty and the tall buildings of the metropolis.


At the ferry on Ellis Island is an eager, expectant crowd of relatives and friends waiting to greet those from the other side. They stand in front of the wire netting that pursues the alien down to the water's edge that leads to his new home. There are exclamations of joy when the gates are opened. There are quick embraces--there is no time for extended ones, for the ferry-boat is whistling shrilly.

Mothers and sons, sisters and brothers, cousins, friends, sweethearts, are reunited, and in those few seconds of joy the long years of sorrow and separation are forgotten.

The trip across the harbor this time is one of joyfulness. But there still are others waiting at the Battery to receive these seekers for new homes and new fortunes and bid them God-speed. Each time that the ships re in you may know it by the throngs of all nations that gather there. They wait for hours upon this threshold of America. Then the ferry-boat steams up to the pier, and there are tears of joy and smiles and warm welcomes in all tongues when the last gates to the New World are thrown open wide.   next ►►






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