Encountering Ellis Island
by Ronald H. Bayor

Encountering Ellis IslandA slim little book in a series called “How Things Worked”, this book focuses on the nitty-gritty of how immigrants entered the United States during the great age of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century. How did the procedures typically play out? What was the work day like for an Ellis Island medical inspector, interpreter, or clerk? What was the day of arrival like for a steerage passenger being met by family? For one arriving alone? How was the Angel Island experience different from that at Ellis Island? How was the experience after 1924 different than it had been before the quota system?

I’ve had the general picture all my life, the stories of Grandma and Grandpa’s parents, aunts, and uncles, the depictions shown in movies and conjured in novels, the old photographs in history books, the memoirs of those who came. But for me, the general picture always needs grounding in tangible and specific details. Suppose I were sailing into sight of the United States in 1900, what would happen next? Tell me about the gangplank, the ferry, the pier, the stairs, the luggage claim area, the railings, the benches, the people I will encounter as I walk through all this. What are they writing on these forms? What questions are they asking me? Is there anywhere to sit down? A bathroom? Some lunch? Will this take a few hours, or all day, or several days?

And suppose I worked at Ellis Island. What time of day do I start work, and how long is the day? What are my duties? Am I a matron supervising unaccompanied children? An interpreter translating a babble of questions and answers? A clerk with fingers inky from filling in the blanks on all the paperwork? A doctor, studying faces and backs and gaits, struggling to make snap judgments of people as they file past? A kitchen worker hauling massive pots of soup or stew into a noisy dining area? What am I expected to look for in these masses of people passing by me? How do I feel about them?

This book packs a satisfying amount of detail into a small volume. Beginning with the voyage itself, as one woman recalls the enforced shower and haircut inflicted on everyone before they were allowed to embark, and a man recalls boarding the ship to receive a pillowcase containing a dish, cup and utensils. Chinese men at Angel Island scratched poems into the wooden walls of the barracks. Children who were delayed at Ellis Island attended a few days of school, and played on a rooftop playground.

Several stories entirely new to me have stuck in my thoughts, and made me want to read more.  There are a number of quotes from Edward Steiner, an American who traveled in steerage several times in order to report first hand on what the immigrants experienced aboard ship and when disembarking. His voice sounds forthright and observant, in the excerpts quoted here. The bibliography gives the title of a book he wrote, which I’m wanting to find and read.

Then there are quite a few stories about the repercussions of the quota system introduced in 1924. Because there were monthly quotas for total numbers of people to be admitted, and annual quotas for those to be admitted from each country, ships arriving with immigrant passengers near the end of a month or year often lay-to outside the harbor, waiting for midnight of the first day to cross the invisible line. Arriving a few minutes one way or the other made all the difference in being admitted or sent back. A shipload of Finns crossed very slightly over the line before midnight, to avoid a collision in the crowd of waiting ships, and the next morning the passengers were in luck or out of it according to how they answered the question “Were you at the bow of the ship or the stern?” Another case involved a Polish woman who had gone back to Poland on a short visit to family. Her child, born aboard ship on the way back, was threatened with deportation because the quota for Polish immigrants had just been already met for that year.

For a short little book, this has given my mind a lot to chew on.