|Quarantine Stations (pest-houses), Port of New York
1758: Bedloe’s (Liberty) Island
1796: Nutten (Governor’s) Island
1799: Staten Island – Tompkinsville
1847: Ward’s Island (State Emigrant Hospital) - 18??: Blackwell’s Island
1855-1890: Castle Garden (Immigrant landing center)
1857: Staten Island, Seguine Point
1859: Floating hospitals: steamship Falcon; 1873 steamer Illinois
1860/1873: Swinburne (= Dix, Hospital, West Bank) Island & Hoffman Island
1874: Staten Island, Clifton (Health Officer residences & boarding site for vessels with no sick passengers)
1892: Camp Low, Sandy Hook; steamer Stonington
1892-1954: Jan 1, 1892, Ellis Island
The frustration and panic expressed at the May 6, 1857, public meeting was palpable. The spread of yellow fever from newly arriving infected immigrants at Tompkinsville’s quarantine hospitals, Staten Island, was real, and now a new Staten Island quarantine complex was being established at Seguine Point.
If a person with the disease is bitten by the right species of mosquito, the insect can then transmit the virus to an uninfected person. Just one year after the opening of the Tompkinsville facility, yellow fever had broken out among the locals living outside the compound; of the 25 cases, 24 had succumbed to the disease. During the summer months of nearly every year from 1799 to 1858, Staten Islanders living in the vicinity of the station were lost to the disease. In 1848, approximately 180 had died, yet despite the constant protest of island citizens, some state government officials and other interest groups successfully blocked the closure of the station. But citizen demands to close the compound or pest-house as it was often called, continued to increase. Finally in early 1857, New York’s Governor appointed three Quarantine Commissioners to find a new site. The Commissioners’ preference was Sandy Hook, but after having been refused the sale of the necessary parcel of land by the New Jersey’s Legislature, they selected Seguine Point. In the process, they had ignored the populated, nearby villages and the fact that its bay was too shallow to be easily accessed by the sea.
At the meeting of May 6, 1857, held at Richmond, Staten Island, there were rancorous discussions about the loss of property value and the danger of disease as a result of the new Seguine Point facility. “That the burning of a building was agreed upon at this meeting, is not known,” wrote a New York Times reporter on the following day, “but a resolution to burn them, we believe, was passed at the public meeting held in Richmond.”
Sometime just before midnight of May 6, approximately 20 vigilantes invaded Seguine Point. Using oyster stakes, men broke into the main house, smashed furniture, and set the building ablaze. Before returning to the shelter of night, they had set aflame nearly everything connected to the new station. But it would not be the last time that frightened local citizens took matters into their own hands.
In 1758, the Colonial Legislature had established the Port of New York’s first quarantine station at Bedloe’s Island, the site of the Statue of Liberty. Ships entering the harbor whose passengers and/or crew were infected with small-pox, cholera, yellow fever, or other contagious diseases were held at the island’s hospital. In 1796, the quarantine facility was moved to Governor’s Island but with the emergence of yellow fever on the island in 1799, the State Legislature made arrangements to purchase a larger site at Tompkinsville. The quarantine station began operating on that very year.
Along with the increasing population in the vicinity of the Tompkinsville facility came an ever increasing chorus of hostility from the surrounding community. Around 9:00 P.M. on the night of September 1, 1858, a number of armed arsonists breached the walls of the Tompkinsville compound. Carrying the patients off on their mattress, the invaders laid on them ground a short distance away before setting fire to the structures and their contents. Little was spared including the Health Director’s private dwelling. “Burning quarantine” wrote a New York Times reporter, “has for a longtime been deemed a pardonable offence by some Staten Island men who hold respectable positions in society – their deep-routed determination to be rid of what they consider their greatest curse.” The failure of authorities to find and prosecute Seguine Point’s arsonists had also provided incentive for those at Tompkinsville.
A number of the quarantined immigrants were temporarily housed in a barn, the only building that had survived the fires, while others were placed in tents. About twenty convalescent patients were moved to Ward’s Island.
Just four days after the incineration of Tompkinsville, one of the leading arsonists, Ray Tompkins, was arrested and on the following day, six others were taken into custody. Upon appearing before Justice Welsh, bail was set at $2,000 for each person. Later that day, Cornelius Vanderbilt and another wealthy citizen bailed out the all of the defendants.
At their October trial, there was sworn testimony from resident physicians and high profile citizens regarding the spread of disease from the quarantined immigrants to the local population. Furthermore, it was argued, there had been a total disregard for the Acts of 1849 and 1857, which had called for the dismantling of the quarantine complex and moving it to another site. Then in a summation that went on for two hours, Defense Attorney Anthon called for the acquittal of the arsonists.
Attorney Anthon’s arguments had apparently resonated with Judge Metcalf. In rendering his decision in November of 1858, the judge stated that, in this case, “there was an entire absence of willfulness or malice on the part of the incendiaries.” “I am of the opinion,” he said, “that no crime was committed.” He looked on the burning of the quarantine complex as “an act of self-defense for the protection of life and property,” and he added, “the emergency authorized the destruction of the property in question even if it belonged to the State.” The defendants were set free.
Finding a new site for a quarantine station had become urgent. Robbin’s Reef, Coney Island, Ward’s Point, and Old Orchard Shoal were considered, but they were all rejected for various reasons. Seguine Point, which had been burned, was never rebuilt. Instead, it would later be used as a burial ground for some of the immigrants that had succumbed to disease. As a result, New York officials felt that Sandy Hook was still the best choice, but no amount of money could convince the New Jersey Legislatures to agree. “Not in my backyard” was the general attitude of New Yorkers and their neighboring state.
In late June of 1859, most of the remaining patents were transferred from Tompkinsville. Those suffering from small-pox were moved to Blackwell’s Island ( = Welfare Island, Roosevelt Island) and the others were taken to Ward’s Island. In the meantime, the steamer Flacon, which had transported passengers to the gold rush fields of California, was refitted as a floating hospital. Her main deck was divided into forty wards, ten feet long and eight feet wide. Her lower deck also accommodated patients. Once it was ready, the hospital vessel was towed to her mooring in the Lower Bay.
The best solution for a permanent quarantine was eventually determined to be the creation of artificial islands in the Lower Bay. Using rip-rap with sand fill, work began on the construction of Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island around 1866 and completed in 1872. Hoffman Island, named for John T. Hoffman, a former New York City mayor, was located about 1 1/8 mile southwest of the VerrazanoNarrows Bridge; it eventually covered 9.3 acres. Swinburne Island, named after Dr. John Swinburne, a New York Harbor Health Officer, was located approximately 2 ½ miles south of the bridge; it was approximately 3 acres.
Under the Act of April 29, 1863, vessels arriving at the Port of New York were subject to quarantine if there were ongoing communicable disease(s) at their point of departure or at any other port-of-call while in transit to New York. Upon arrival, quarantined vessels were instructed to anchor in the Lower Bay in a designated area which was no less than two miles offshore. Sick passengers and crew were transferred to Swinburne Island, while persons exposed to a communicable disease, but not sick, were held on Hoffman Island for the period of incubation.
When inspected by a committee of the Philadelphia College of Physicians, Hoffman Island was found to have …“almost no separation of ages, sexes or families,” and there was no provision for isolating persons exposed to communicable diseases from the general population. Flush toilets were few in number and those that existed were generally not operating due to defects in the pump system. As a substitute, a long trench was dug in the sand which ended …“not more than fifty feet from one of the large buildings, and about thirty feet from one of the cisterns.” Neither of the islands had a resident physician. However, the Health Officer, a physician, visited their facilities once or twice a day to examine and/or treat the immigrants.
Swinburne Island consisted of several one story buildings including the hospital. The island’s personnel included a resident superintendent and two male nurses who cared for both men and women.
In 1909, Hoffman Island’s facilities were converted from an immigration detention center to a hospital for the care of measles, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. In some ways, children that died of one of these diseases may have been victims of a turf war between the Port of New York’s Health Officer and Federal Immigration/Health Authorities. A modern $700,000 hospital, built specifically on Ellis Island for the care of immigrants with measles and other minor contagious diseases, was largely unused. Instead, as was protested in the press, immigrant children who arrived at the port infected with one of the diseases were taken from the steamer and transported across the cold, windswept bay to Hoffman Island. Statistics for that year indicated that over a period of four months at the island hospital, twenty-seven children had succumbed to measles and four of scarlet fever. An additional ten had died of other contagious diseases.
The islands were sold to the U.S. Public Health Service in 1920, but with the decline of immigration, the facilities were eventually relegated to the quarantine of imported parrots. During the Second World War, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy took over Swinburne, and the U.S. Maritime Service trained merchant seamen at Hoffman. The islands were abandoned in 1947, and today, there is very little evidence that the facilities had ever served in the quarantine process.
|The mid-1800s saw a tremendous
expansion in trans-Atlantic commerce. Thousands of sailing vessels transported
cotton, tobacco, and other products to the European markets, but on the reverse
crossing, these same ships frequently had few goods. Ship owners thus turned to
the transportation of European emmigrants.
The majority of vessels returning to their home ports the United States and Canada-returning were ill-equipped for carrying human cargo. The immigrants were housed in steerage, a name given to the deck(s) which held the vessel’s steering mechanism. The trip could take several weeks and was unimaginably difficult. Ships were overcrowded and sometimes even lacked the required stores of food and drinking water. Frequently, there was an insufficient number of beds, and sanitary conditions were appalling. The stench that rose from the decks below was described by one observer as “smelling like a pig pen.” Mortality during a trans-Atlantic crossing could also be very high, especially among the children.
During this time, New York Harbor’s quarantine system was marred by corruption. The harbor’s Health Officer had absolute control over all vessels entering the port during nearly two-thirds of the year (the warmer months). The position, which was regarded as a political prize, was open to abuse. Passenger ships and steamers with no evidence of disease on board were subject to an indefinite period of observation at the whim of the Health Officer. But if the captain of such a ship agreed to discharge his cargo to a lighter under control of the Health Officer and pay double the normal harbor rate, and/or agreed to transfer his passengers by quarantine steamboat at two dollars gold per person, his ship was allowed to dock. Ships with sick passengers or crew could be charged as much as forty dollars for each person transferred to Ward’s Island or Swinburne Island.
The Health Officer was paid through the fees collected from merchants and vessel owners. “From this source alone,” reported the Joint Committee on Quarantine and Harbor Abuses, “it is computed that his fees last year (1871) amounted to forty-thousand dollars.” During that same year, vaccinations brought him another eighteen thousand dollars. In addition, the State furnished the Health Officer a residence along with all of its maintenance costs. The two steamers from which he derived part of his income were provided by New York State, along with the salaries for their crews. But very little of the charges levied on vessel owners and merchants ever found their way to the State Treasury.
Following the report of the Joint Committee on Quarantine and Harbor Abuses, fees that could be collected by the Health Officer were limited, conditions for detention of vessels were drastically modified, and a Board of Appeals consisting of the presiding officers of the Chamber of Commerce and the Ship Owner’s Association was added to review controversial decisions made by the Health Officer. The abuses that had hurt commerce in the Port of New York were for the most part remedied, but the hardships imposed on immigrants continued into the age of steamships.
The transition to steamships in the late 1800s reduced the time spent at sea, but for those immigrants with limited or no financial resources, the trip continued to be made below deck, in steerage. Accommodations in steerage varied from ship-to-ship but for most they tended to be substantially inadequate. The decks generally consisted of long narrow compartments that were often separated into sections for single men, single women, and families. Sleeping quarters consisted of two or three-tier iron or wood-frame bunks equipped with a straw mattress, no pillow and, if provided, a very thin blanket. Immigrants used their life preserver as a pillow. They also had to somehow squeeze all of their hand baggage on the bed since there was generally was no provision for hanging or storing them.
Dining facilities were often non-existent, leaving passengers to eat at their beds or at jury-rigged tables made of small planks set up in the passageways of the sleeping quarters. The floors in the compartments were constructed of wood or iron; they were frequently covered by a slick of vomit since few or no containers were provided for seasickness. The ships were required to have separate toilets and washing facilities for the men and women, but they were inadequate for the number of people onboard, and were all-too-frequently used simultaneously by both sexes. Hot water was usually lacking leaving only cold salt water for bathing, washing clothes, and cleaning dishpans and dishes (usually made of tin). Some steamships had a small section of outside deck for use of the steerage-class passengers, but most of the space was occupied by machinery and generally there were no chairs or benches provided for seating. Cinders from the steamship’s smokestacks often showered everyone on deck.
Food served in steerage varied from stale bread, spoiled fish, meat, or potatoes, and other rations, to a fairly well balanced diet. For an additional cost, stewards frequently offered extras that included fruits, alcohol, and sweets. Larger, more established shipping lines were most liklely to provide the best quality food.
The United States Passenger Act of 1882 included space requirements for each passenger and excluded male crew members from the women’s compartments except when their duties required such entry. But an unaccompanied woman was frequently at the mercy of the crew. Anna Herkner who crossed the Atlantic in steerage three times as part of a 1909 Immigration Commission investigation reported “…not one woman in steerage escaped attack.” “Some of the crew were always on deck, and took all manner of liberties with the women, in broad daylight as well as after dark.”
Swindlers and thieves preyed on the immigrants, on land and aboard ship. Dishonest ticket agents, stewards, money changers, immigration officials, boardinghouse keepers, train conductors, and employers were among the many willing to take from the vulnerable newcomers.
|During the spring and summer of 1892,
a tidal wave of cholera, spread through human waste-contaminated water and food.
It swept across India and the Middle East, through famine-stricken Russia and
Eastern Europe, and to the major ports of Western Europe. William Jenkins, New
York’s Health Officer, watched the disease’s progress and prepared to protect
the city from its onslaught.
The first cholera-stricken vessel to arrive at the Port of New York was the Moravia. Before her departure from Hamburg, Germany, the steamship had taken on drinking water from the Elbe River; it was contaminated by cholera. Stricken passengers typically developed symptoms that included violent cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration followed by coma and death. By the time she arrived at the Port of New York on the evening of August 30, 1892, twenty-two of her passengers had lost their lives to the disease. Within a two-week period, another six, disease-bearing transatlantic “pest ships” arrived, and were at anchor in the Lower Bay. In many cases the bodies of passengers who had died at sea were simply tossed overboard along with their meager possessions “as if they were dead birds or garbage.” Once in port, “the dead were removed at night to save the feelings of the living, and were cremated.”
Similar to his predecessors, Jenkins had chosen to treat steerage immigrants very differently from the first and second cabin-class passengers. When a steamship arrived from an infected port, the Health Officer quarantined all of the passengers in steerage while generally allowing those in cabin-class to land after only a brief medical exam. One commentator correctly wrote that even though certain people could afford cabin-class, it did not prevent them from contracting and/or spreading a communicable disease. But the growing resentment and fear, particularly of potentially cholera-infected, low-income, steerage immigrants was reflected in some of the press. A front-page article in the New York Times published on August 29, 1892, partially read: “These people” (immigrants) “are offensive enough at best; under the present circumstances, they are a positive menace to the health of the country. Even should they pass the Quarantine officials, their mode of life, when they settle down makes them always a source of danger. Cholera, it must be remembered, originates in the homes of this human riff-raff.”
The steamship Normannia arrived at New York on September 3, 1892. She carried 573 cabin-class passengers, 482 in steerage, and a crew of about 300. During her crossing from Southampton with a stop in Hamburg, six in steerage and one second-cabin class passenger, Carl Hegert, had succumbed to cholera. A Nebraska resident, Hegert was returning home from a visit to Germany.
Eight-year-old immigrant Emma Horn was lost to the disease the day after arriving at the Lower Bay. Her two brothers, ages eleven months and three years, had died in transit leaving their parents childless. Most of those who had succumbed were very young children, but it had also become apparent to Jenkins that the disease was not limited merely to steerage-class immigrants. He thus chose to quarantine the entire ship.
About two days after the Normannia’s arrival, the steamship’s sick and suspected ill steerage passengers were transferred to Swinburne Island’s hospitals. The remaining steerage passengers and their baggage were then taken to quarantine at the already overcrowded Hoffman Island; they were disinfected by washing themselves with a bichloride of mercury solution. Those in cabin-class remained aboard for the next two weeks, but they were confined with at least two members of the crew who later died of the disease.
In an attempt to manage information on the predicament of those still aboard the Normannia, Jenkins warned the passengers that he would “keep the whole body in confinement for full twenty days if any of them wrote to a newspaper.” But when the plight of the steamship’s wealthy cabin-class socialites reached the press, there were demands for their immediate release from their floating “iron prison.”
J. Pierpont Morgan donated the use of his Sound steamer Stonington for holding the apparently healthy cabin-class passengers. Some from the Normannia were transferred to the small steamer but no medicine or physician was made available to them. Federal authorities proposed to have the steamship’s remaining passengers transferred to nearby Camp Low, a newly built facility at Sandy Hook, but Jenkins turned down the offer. Instead, he decided to move them to the Surf Hotel on Fire Island which had recently been purchased by New York State as a quarantine-related facility. The passengers were crowded onto a small excursion boat, the Cepheus, and taken to Fire Island. Waiting for them at the docks was an armed and angry mob, determined not to let the pest-ship passengers disembark. The Cepheus backed-off and waited out the night at anchor. On the following day, units of the National Guard and Naval Reserve were called up by New York Governor Flower to assure the passengers’ safety. The mobs disappeared and within a day, the passengers had made their way from the Fire Island hotel to New York City. The New York Times had been effusive in its praise of Governor Flower’s decision to purchase the hotel, but a few days after the departure of the cabin-class passengers, the facility was deemed unsuitable for quarantine.
During the 1892 cholera epidemic at the Port of New York, 128 passengers died while still aboard the seven pest ships, and an additional 132 lost their battle to the disease at Swinburne Island’s hospital(s) and other related facilities. There were ten cases that occurred in New York City and one in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but none were ever connected to immigrants that had arrived aboard the disease-bearing ships. A September 27, 1892, New York Times’ biased article, placed much of the blame for the epidemic on the wretched immigrants driven from Russia by persecution, but it did recognize the need for “…having a uniform system of quarantine regulations with adequate means of enforcing them under the authority of the National Government.”
|From 1800 to 1924, approximately 25
million immigrants landed on our shores. Cheap labor, as it is now, was one of
the motivating factors for attracting immigrants. Beginning in 1830, the building
of railroads and the resulting creation of portals to new farmland, economic
opportunity, and living space increased the need for more citizens. But the
fear of lowering wages, spread of disease, differences in customs and
languages, imported vices, crime, and the possibility of change in the “moral
fabric” of the then existing society were but some of the objections voiced
against the newcomers.
Beginning in 1875, when Congress passed legislation restricting the number of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, laws were initiated mainly in response to issues of domestic concern. In 1892, the year that saw the opening of Ellis Island, Congress passed a law further restricting immigration by excluding “convicts, lunatics, idiots, or any other person unable to care of himself or herself without a public charge.” Later laws addressed prostitution (1910), excluded immigrants by means of a literacy test (1917), set quotas - Quota Laws (1921 and 1924), instituted the Alien Registration Act (1940), the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act - excluded members of the communist and fascist organizations (1950), Hart-Celler Act - established separate quotas for the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, and gave preference to refugees and to those who already had family living in the U.S. (1965), and a law that facilitated the immigration of highly skilled individuals (1990).
Prior to the establishment of Ellis Island, Castle Garden, located at the Battery off the tip of Manhattan Island, served as an immigrant landing center. Early in its history, Castle Garden, first called West Battery and later named Castle Clinton after New York’s first governor, was armed with twenty-eight guns. During the War of 1812, the circular garrison helped ward of British raids, but ten years later, it was deemed to be no longer needed for the defense of the harbor. It was turned over to the city, renamed Castle Garden, and converted to an amusement park and concert hall.
By 1854, there was a pressing need for an immigrant processing center. The State Legislature appropriated funds for making repairs and changes to the old structure, and on August 1, 1854, the facility welcomed its first immigrants. From that date to its closing in 1891, nearly eight million newcomers arrived to America through doors of Castle Garden. In December of 1896, the facility reopened as an aquarium. It operated there until 1941 when all of its exhibits were moved temporarily to the Bronx Zoo. On June 6th, 1957, the aquarium was relocated to its present location at Coney Island.
“Where shall immigrants be landed” was the title of a March 20, 1890, New York Times article. Castle Garden had been found to be inadequate for the numbers of immigrants arriving at the Port of New York; Committees of the Senate and House had traveled from Washington to look into the matter. Bedloe’s (Liberty) Island, Ward’s Island, and Ellis Island were considered for the new site, but the Committee finally decided on Ellis Island. “Ellis Island,” stated one of the committee members, “is used for the storage of gunpowder. The island is too dangerously near the city for this purpose…” The water approach was shallow and was viewed as requiring extensive dredging, but the urgency for removing the explosives storage facility from Ellis Island sealed its selection for the new immigration center.
Ellis Island opened its doors on January 1, 1892. It consisted of a three-story reception center, a hospital, and a number of small support buildings on a 3 ½ acre site. From a single island, the facility eventually grew to three islands totaling 27 ½ acres.
Annie Moore, described as a “rosy cheek Irish girl” from County Cork, was the first immigrant to be processed on Ellis Island. She was presented with a ten-dollar gold piece by the island’s superintendent. On that day, 700 new immigrants entered the country through the new facility. At that time, it could be said that the processing of immigrants began with the purchase of a steamship ticket to America. The ticket agent was held liable for excluding undesirables. Those that didn’t succeed in obtaining a ticket sometimes boarded ships bound for Mexico or Canada, and entered via our mutually porous borders (as it still occurs). Before allowing immigrants to board a ship headed for an American port, the steamship company representative was responsible for obtaining immigrant information that included full name, sex, marital status, occupation, and the person’s health. If the steamship transported someone with a contagious disease, it could be assessed one-hundred dollars for each infected person.
On arrival at the Port of New York, a quarantine officer inspected the immigrants for signs of communicable disease. Those found sick were sent directly to the hospital (Ellis Island’s, or those on Hoffman or Swinburne Islands), and all others were placed aboard barges and taken to the reception center at Ellis Island.
During processing, difficulties in communications could result in registering an immigrant under a new name. One author described the case of Hohannes Gardashian, a Greek male who was admitted under the name of Joe Arness after the inspector complained that the man’s name was to long.
Medical examination of the immigrants took place as the individuals walked a few feet apart, in a single-file past two doctors; each physician examined for different signs of problems. A clerk then interrogated each person from a list of some twenty-nine questions while in the presence of an immigrant inspector. If the inspector was convinced that the alien was not entitled to immigrate or if an individual was certified by the physician as “suffering from loathsome or dangerous contagious disease, idiocy, epilepsy, or insanity,” he or she was sent to the Board of Special Inquiry. The board, consisting of three immigrant officials, examined the case. If two of the three agreed, their decision prevailed. The alien, however, could appeal through the port’s Commissioner of Immigration.
For those who passed inspection, the process could last from about one to five hours. The newcomers ID card were stamped “admitted” and after paying a two-dollar head tax (four dollars after July 1, 1907), they were taken by ferry to the mainland.
The island’s peak year for immigration was in 1907 when over a million passed through its facilities. During the First World War, the flow of immigrants slowed dramatically. The Act of 1921, which set a quota of 357,000 immigrants per year was followed in 1924 by an even greater reduction down to 150,000. In 1931, Secretary of Labor Doak, with President Hoover’s blessing, announced the deportation of “everyone who cannot prove he is lawfully resident here.” Within a short time, Ellis Island held over 18,000 deportees.
During the Second World War, the U.S. Coast Guard took over some of the facilities for personnel housing and for training. At the same time, some of the buildings became a detention center for enemy aliens. In March of 1951, the island’s hospital was closed and three years later, Ellis Island ceased all operations. For many, the island was the doorway to a new life, but for the approximately two percent that were turned away, it was the “Isle of Tears.”
Except of Christmas, Ellis Island is open every day of the year from 9:30am until 5:00pm. The Battery Park Ferry to the island runs on a schedule of about every 40 minutes.