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The Trip Over
The Trip Over the Atlantic
[Adapted from original material at Allegheny Kiski Valley Heritage Site http://www.akvhs.org]
Our ancestors immigrated to America in the first decade of the 20th Century, crossing the Atlantic in iron steamships. Transatlantic steamship companies and railroad companies distributed brochures and posters in many languages throughout the United States and Europe to drum up business. They painted a rosy picture of employment opportunities and quality of life in America. Steamship companies like the Red Star and White Star Lines offered ticket packages to transport immigrants by rail and steamship from their homes in Europe to their new homes in America. For example, a typical company offered to transport passengers by train from their homes to the company village at the port of Le Havre, where they were examined by company doctors, given an antiseptic bath and short haircut, vaccinated, and quarantined several days before being placed on a steamship to America. Their luggage was fumigated with steam before boarding, which destroyed many of their belongings. Steamship companies screened passengers carefully, because they were fined as much as $100 for each passenger rejected by U. S. Immigration.
U. S. Immigration required ships to compile detailed manifests for all passengers landing in America. Each numbered manifest sheet had room for thirty names, and each immigrant was assigned a passenger number from one to thirty. Information on each passenger was record in the columns to the right of his name, for example: age, sex, occupation, country where he was a citizen, intended destination, whether he is in transit or permanent, location of his space or berth on the ship. number of bags, port of embarkation, and date and cause of death if he died en route.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Atlantic crossing in an iron steamship took six to twelve days, far better than the two to four months it took for sailing vessels in the days before steam. By the 1880’s, almost all transatlantic passengers’ vessels were steamships. Most immigrants booked into the less expensive ‘steerage" class, which cost at least $25. This was about two or three weeks wages for a coal miner. Second class cabins cost about $20 more. Steerage compartments were in the lowest decks; along with the ships steering controls and engines. Each steerage passenger was assigned a numbered metal berth, a canvas or burlap mattress stuffed with hay or seaweed, a life preserver which doubled as a pillow, and a tin pail and utensils for meals, which were often served from a huge tank. The bunks were typically stacked two high and two side by side, and a compartment might accommodate 100 to 400 or more passengers. Yet these conditions in the first decade of the 20th Century were much improved over those in previous years. After 1910 the newer ships replaced steerage class with third class, which consisted of four-berth or six-berth cabins. Stewards served meals in dining rooms, and the passengers had china and flatware.
Passenger steamships typically docked at a pier in Hoboken, NJ, where steerage passengers were transferred to a crowded ferryboat, which the company chartered to carry them to Ellis Island. Each passenger was given a landing card and medical inspection car. The landing card was pinned to his lapel, listing the name of the steamship, manifest sheet number, and passenger number. The medical inspection card recorded each time the ship’s doctor examined the passenger, which was usually once a day. Ellis processed an average of 2,000-4,000 immigrants a day, but some days were busier than others. On 27 March 1907, when 16,050 passengers arrived in a twenty-four hour period, thousands spent days waiting aboard their steamships in the harbor, and hours waiting on ferryboats. Stephen Graham called the crowded ferry to Ellis a "floating waiting room." Some passengers, particularly sick children, died on the ferries to Ellis in the freezing cold on the Hudson River. One doctor estimated that 30% of children with measles died on the ferryboats. Second class passengers, however, were processed at the pier in New Jersey. The extra $20-$40 for second class enabled them to travel in more comfort and avoid the long lines of Ellis Island altogether, but they had to deal with thieving railroad ticket agents and baggage handlers.
After immigrants disembarked from their ferryboats on Ellis, they proceeded up the stairs to the south hall to begin an inspection process which took at least an hour or two. Each presented his medical inspection card, and was given a two or three minute physical exam by a Marine Hospital Service doctor. If the doctor suspected any abnormality he would mark the immigrant’s lapel with a piece of chalk: "B" for back, "C" for conjunctivitis, "Ct" for trachoma, "F" for eyes, "F" for face, "Ft’ for feet, "C" for goiter, "H" for heart, "K" for hernia, "L" for lameness, "N" for neck, "P’ for physical and lungs, ‘Pg" for pregnant, or "S" for senility, "Sc" for scalp, and "X" for mental illness. The most painful part of the exam came when the doctor pulled the eyelids up and over a metal buttonhook to check for trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease common in southeastern Europe. Infected passengers were immediately sent to an isolation area in the hospital or a quarantine station on Staten Island, and deported. Marked immigrants were detained in a holding area for a more detailed exam, which might lead to quarantine or deportation. Some learned the trick of turning their marked coats inside out.
If the immigrant passed the physical he would wait in the Registry Hall on the second floor to be interviewed by a registry clerk. Immigrants were called to a multi-lingual clerk’s desk in groups of thirty, by their ship’s manifest page number. As the clerk reviewed the manifest, he asked the thirty immigrants one-by-one, often through a government interpreter, if they had money and a job. The answer was not easy to give, noted Fiorello LaGuardia, who was an interpreter on Ellis from 1910-12. If the immigrant said he had no job, he could be deported on grounds of being a public charge, but if he admitted to having a job waiting for him, he could be deported for violation of the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885. The question of how much money was enough to get into America was left to the clerk’s discretion until 1909, when Commissioner Williams required each immigrant to have at least $25.
If the immigrant answered to the satisfaction of the clerk, he could proceed to the currency exchange counter, then to the railroad ticket counter if he did not already have a ticket. He could also send telegrams or eat at the restaurant before exiling down the "Stairs of Separation." The stairs to the right led to rail stations for immediate passage to various cities; the center stairs led to detention areas; and the stairs to the left led down to the ferryboats to New York City. On the ground floor he could arrange to have his luggage shipped, although most carried their bags with them the whole time.
Before 1906, an alien could become a citizen by merely taking an oath. But after 1906, federal laws required a candidate to appear before a court, to prove he could speak English, and to answer questions on American history, civics, and the Constitution. Many immigrants, therefore, postponed becoming citizens for decades. The naturalization process took at least five years. The first step for an alien, who had resided in the U. S. at least two years, was to file a "declaration of intent" with a court. Any court of record could be used, but most large cities processed aliens through a U. S. District Court. Three years later the alien could file a ‘petition for naturalization’ with a court. If he knew English and passed the questions he was awarded a Certificate of Naturalization. From 1790-1922, wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens, and women who married naturalized men automatically became citizens. But American women who married aliens automatically became aliens; even if they remained in the U. S. Also, from 1790-1940, children under age twenty-one automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of their father.