True Immigrant Tales: Waiting Without Food and Water

[This is Part 2 of American journal Broughton Brandenburg’s account of a 1903 steamship voyage with immigrants in steerage, taken from his book, Imported Americans.]

“. . . In mid-afternoon. . . when we reached the slip at Ellis Island we merely tied up, for there were many barge-loads ahead of us, and we waited our turn to be unloaded and examined.

“Waiting, waiting, waiting, without food and without water; or, if there was water, we could not get to it on account of the crush of people. Children cried, mothers strove to hush them, the musically inclined sang or played, and then the sun went down while we waited and still waited.

“Cooped up in the barge, we waited till the sun got down into the smoke of Bayonne and Elizabeth and was a great red ball only, so dull that the eye could contemplate it pleasantly. Then came the shadows of night, and we began to dread that our turn to be disembarked would come so late that we should either be taken back to the steamer or be kept on the island until morning. Myriads of lights were shining in the great buildings. Each time the old ferry-boat floundered across from the Battery it brought a crowd of friends of immigrants who had been summoned from New York and elsewhere to meet the newly arrived ones. All the races of Europe seemed to be represented in the crowds on the ferryboat as it passed close to us when bound back to the Battery.

“The babies had sobbed themselves to sleep, worn-out mothers sat with their heads drooped on the children they held to their breasts, and among the men mirth and song had died away, though now and then a voice would be heard inquiring if anyone knew when or where we would get something to eat.

ImageBarge arrivals at Ellis Island

“‘All ready for the last Irenes’ sang out a voice somewhere in the darkness up by the buildings, and there was a clatter of feet overhead and on the wharf. The doors of the barge were opened. The barge hands dragged out the plank. The ropes restraining the crowd were dropped, and the weary hundreds, shouldering their baggage yet once again, poured out of the barge on to the wharf. . . [and] to the covered approach to the grand entrance to the building, and the strange assemblage of Old World humanity streamed along. . . an interesting procession indeed. . . .

“Half-way up the stairs an interpreter stood telling the immigrants to get their health tickets ready, and so I knew that Ellis Island was having ‘a long day’ and we were to be passed upon even if it took half the night. The majority of the people, having their hands full of bags, boxes, bundles, and children, carried their tickets in their teeth, and just at the head of the stairs stood a young doctor in the Marine Hospital Service uniform, who took them, looked at them, and stamped them with the Ellis Island stamp. . . .

“Passing straight east from the head of the stairs, we turned into the south half of the great registry floor, which is divided, like the human body, into two great parts nearly alike, so that one ship’s load can be handled on one side and another ship’s load on the other. In fact, as we came up, a quantity of people from the north of Europe were being examined in the north half.

“Turning into a narrow railed-off lane, we encountered another doctor in uniform, who lifted hats or pushed back shawls to look for favus heads, keenly scrutinized the face and body for signs of disease or deformity, and passed us on. An old man who limped in front of me, he marked with a bit of chalk on the coat lapel. At the end of the railed lane was a third uniformed doctor, a towel hanging beside him, a small instrument over which to turn up eyelids in his hand, and back of him basins of disinfectants.

“As we approached he was examining a Molise woman and her two children. The youngest screamed with fear when he endeavored to touch her, but with a pat on the cheek and a kindly word, the child was quieted while he examined its eyes, looking for trachoma or purulent ophthalmia. The second child was so obstinate that it took some minutes to get it examined, and then, having found suspicious conditions, he marked the woman with a bit of chalk, and a uniformed official led her and the little ones to the left into the rooms for special medical examination. The old man who limped went the same way, as well as many others. . . .

“Passing west, we came to the waiting-rooms, in which the groups which are entered on each sheet of the manifest are held until K sheet or L sheet, whatever their letter may be, is reached. . .

“We sank down on the wooden benches, thankful to get seats once more. Our eyes pained severely for some few minutes as a result of the turning up of the lids, but the pain passed.

“Somewhere about nine o’clock an official came by and hurried out U group and passed it up into line along the railed way which led up to the inspector who had U sheet. . . . Our papers were all straight; we were correctly entered on the manifest, had abundant money, had been passed by the doctors, and were properly destined to New York, and so were passed in less than one minute. We were classed as ‘New York Outsides’ to distinguish us from the ‘New York Detained,’ who await the arrival of friends to receive them; ‘Railroads,’ who go to the stations for shipment; and ‘S.I.’s,’ by which is meant those unfortunates who are subjected to Special Inquiry in the semi-secret Special Inquiry Court, which is the preliminary to being sent back, though, of course, only a portion of ‘S. I.’s’ are sent back. . . .

ImageEllis Island Money Exchange

“We began to see why the three stairways are called ‘The Stairs of Separation.’ To their right is the money exchange, to the left are the Special Inquiry Room and the telegraph offices. Here family parties with different destinations are separated without a minute’s warning, and often never see each other again. It seems heartless, but it is the only practical system, for if allowance was made for good-byes, the examination and distribution process would be blocked then and there by a dreadful crush. Special officers would be necessary to tear relatives forcibly from each other’s arms. The stairs to the right lead to the railroad room, where tickets are arranged, baggage checked and cleared from customs, and the immigrants loaded on boats to be taken to the various railroad stations for shipment to different parts of the country. The central stair leads to the detention rooms, where immigrants are held pending the arrival of friends. The left descent is for those free to go out to the ferry.”

[Read about other immigrants and Ellis Island workers in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

 G

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