|Imagine your ancestors
huddled in the filthy, dark cavity of a ship, being loaded onto
barges, herded like cattle through immigration lines, their stomachs
empty and their spirits weakened by the long journey across the
sea. This was their immigrant experience. Shipped like human cattle,
they left with nothing and arrived with nothing. America promised
a better life for everyone who passed through the Golden Door.
Their immigrant experience was a grimy, dirty city with ragged,
dreary clothing hung on a line between ramshackle buildings. The
smell of raw sewage mixed with the pungent odors of unwashed flesh
and hundreds of thousands of immigrants-the place of new beginnings
where the streets were reputed to be paved in gold-an immigrant
experience unlike anything we could imagine.
From 1855 to 1890, Castle Gardens, New York served as America's
immigration depot. The cost of a steerage ticket in 1890 from
Queenstown, Ireland to Castle Gardens, New York was $12.00. Castle
Gardens, New York was the major port of entry for all the Europeans
clamoring to escape from the clutches of monarchies and kings,
the systems of caste and peasantry, of famine and numbing poverty.
But also left behind were friends and family as well as tradition
and customs generations old. The immigrant experience forever
altered their lives.
In 1882, the first general Federal Immigration Law denied entrance
at Castle Gardens, New York to any convict, lunatic, idiot, or
any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming
a public charge. In 1891 this law was expanded to include the
expulsion of paupers, prostitutes, polygamists, or persons suffering
from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease. Their unfortunate
immigrant experience determined their fate.
While these laws were meant to protect the immigrant as well
as the American citizen, they had little effect in deterring swindlers,
runners, and labor brokers from exploiting new arrivals after
they passed through the gates at Castle Gardens, New York. The
immigrant experience of abuse and inhumane treatment inside the
depot triggered newspaper accounts, which accused the inspectors
at Castle Gardens, New York of corruption and criminal activity.
My grandparents' Michael Shea and Bridget Murphy emigrated from
Queenstown, Ireland to Castle Gardens, New York in 1880. Their
immigration experience frightened them, and they were careful
not to call attention to themselves as they moved through the
line, for fear of being rejected and returned to Ireland. Castle
Gardens, New York was closed down in 1890 and immigration was
turned over to the federal government.
Ellis Island, New York opened to welcome immigrants from all
over the world in 1892. The confusion of people, crying children,
baggage, and foreign tongues defined this immigrant experience.
Ellis Island, New York was the Island of hope, but for a few,
the island of tears. For immigrants eager to step through the
threshold of America, the sight of the Statue of Liberty was a
welcoming beacon that signaled the end of a long, difficult journey,
and the beginnings of a better life, renewed hope, and bigger
By the 1890s steam-powered ships replaced sailing vessels, making
the Atlantic crossing from three months to two weeks. These steamships
could accommodate as many as two thousand passengers in steerage.
The steerage passengers slept in metal-framed berths three bunks
high; the air inside the steerage compartment was rank with the
heavy odor of spoiled food, seasickness, and unwashed bodies.
There was little privacy, and the lack of adequate toilet facilities
made it difficult to keep clean. By 1910 many ships had replaced
steerage with four and six-berth Third Class cabins. The immigrant
experience improved when the steamships were introduced.
Once inside the building at Ellis Island, New York, the immigrants
made their way, three abreast, to the Registry Room. Doctors had
only seconds to examine each passenger, checking for sixty symptoms,
from anemia to varicose veins. Those who appeared sick were marked
with blue chalk and taken to the Ellis Island, New York Hospital
for observation and care. After passing the line inspection, immigrants
were waved forward toward the Registry Room. It took an average
of five hours to pass through the inspection process at Ellis
Island, New York. The immigrant experience helped to prepare those
entering the United States for the prejudice and suspicion that
would follow them to the tenements of the large cities where they
From the Registry Room, the immigrants were taken to the "Stairs
of Separation," this marked the parting of the way for many
family and friends with different destinations. From here, they
were directed toward the railroad ticket office and trains to
points west. My grandparents' Sarah Beirne and Michael Healy traveled
from Queenstown, Ireland to Ellis Island, New York in 1903. Their
fear of being rejected shattered their nerves. The immigrant experience
worked to strengthen their resolve and heighten their awareness
of being "outsiders" in this new place.
Ellis Island, New York closed its doors in 1954.