True Immigrant Tales: “It Was the Tombstone of Columbus”

[In 1913, Scottish travel writer Stephen Graham (1884-1975) left Liverpool, England, as a steerage passenger. This is an excerpt from his book, With Poor Immigrants to America (1914), in which he described events leading up to his inspection at Ellis Island.]

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                                                              New York City skyline, 1908

“The day of the emigrant’s arrival in New York was the nearest earthly likeness to the final Day of Judgment, when we have to prove our fitness to enter Heaven.  Our trial might well have been prefaced by a few edifying reminders from a priest.

“It was the hardest day since leaving Europe and home. From 5 a.m., when we had breakfast, to three in the afternoon, when we landed at the Battery, we were driven in herds from one place to another, ranged into single files, passed in review before doctors, pocked in the eyes by the eye-inspectors, cross-questioned by the pocket-inspectors, vice detectives, and blue-book compilers.

“Nobody had slept the night before. Those who appreciated America for the first time stood on the open deck and stared at the lights of Long Island. Others packed their trunks. Lovers took long adieus and promised to write one another letters. There was a hum of talking in the cabins, a continual pattering of feet in the gangways, a splashing of water in the lavatories where cleanly emigrants were trying to wash their whole bodies at hand basins. At last the bell rang for breakfast; we made that meal before dawn. When it was finished we all went up on the forward deck to see what America looked like by morning light. A little after six, we were all chased to the after deck and made to file past two detectives and an officer. The detectives eyed us; the officer counted to see that on one was hiding

“At seven o’clock, our boat lifted anchor and we glided up the still waters of the harbor. The whole prow was a black mass of passengers staring at the ferry boats, the distant factories, and skyscrapers. Every point of vantage was seized and some scores of emigrants were clinging to the rigging. At length, we came into sight of the green-gray Statue of Liberty, far away and diminutive at first but, later on, a celestial figure in a blaze of sunlight. An American waved a starry flag in greeting, and some emigrants were disposed to cheer while some shed silent tears. Many, however, did not know what the statue was. I heard one Russian telling another that it was the tombstone of Columbus.

“We carried out at eight, and in a pushing crowd prepared to disembark. At 8:30, we were quick marched out of the ship to the customs wharf and there ranged in six or seven long lines. All the officials were running and hustling, shouting out, ‘Come on!’ ‘Hurry!’ ‘Move along!’ and clapping their hands. Our trunks were examined and chalk marked on the run—no delving for diamonds—and then we were quick marched further to a waiting ferry boat. Here, for the time being, hustle ended. We waited three-quarters of an hour in the seatless ferry, and everyone was anxiously speculating on the coming ordeal of medical and pocket examination.

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           New York Harbor with Brooklyn Bridge in background, 1905

“At a quarter to ten we steamed for Ellis Island. We were then marched to another ferry boat and expected to be transported somewhere else, but this second vessel was simply a floating waiting room. We were crushed and almost suffocated upon it. A hot sun beat upon its wooden roof; the windows in the sides were fixed; we could not move an inch from the places where we were awkwardly standing, for the boxes and baskets were so thick about our feet; babies kept crying sadly, as irritated emigrants swore at the sound of them. All were thinking—‘Shall I get through?’ “Have I enough money?’ ‘Shall I pass the doctor?’ and for a whole hour, in the heat and noise of discomfort, we were kept thinking thus.

“At a quarter past eleven, we were released in detachments. Every twenty minutes each and every passenger picked up his luggage and tried to stampede through the party; a lucky few would bolt past the officer in charge, and the rest would flood back with heartbroken, desperate looks on their faces. Every time they failed to get included in the outgoing party, the emigrants seemed to feel that they had lost their chance of a job or that America was a failure or their coming there was a great mistake. At last, at a quarter-past eleven, it was my turn to rush out and find what Fate and America had in store for me.”

[Stephen Graham’s story about his experiences with Ellis Island processing continues in the next installment. Have you read Guardians of the Gate yet? It’s all about Ellis Island and its people.]


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