We hear a lot about the Port of New York because of the sheer volume of immigrants who passed through it, sometimes to the exclusion of other important ports. Last week we began a series of articles on ports beyond New York, with a look at the Port of Baltimore. This week we continue our series with five things about the Port of Philadelphia.
Located more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Philadelphia would seem an unlikely candidate as a major immigration port of entry, but 1.3 million immigrants passed through the port. The route took immigrants around Cape May at the foot of New Jersey, into the Delaware Bay and up the Delaware River to Philadelphia, adding more than two hundred miles to the journey from Europe. And the route wasn’t without its hazards. The Delaware River often froze over during winter, limiting early immigration to warmer months.
2. The Immigrants
During the 1700s, there was an influx of German and Scots-Irish immigrants, many of whom arrived as indentured servants or “redemptioners,” who stayed in the city to work off the cost of the passage. Between 1847 and 1854, the port of Philadelphia ranked 4th in terms of immigration, receiving 4.4% of immigrants arriving in America.
By 1870, more than 25% of the city’s 750,000 residents were foreign, with 100,000 Irish and 50,000 Germans comprising the majority of the immigrant population and English and Scottish immigrants accounting for much of the remainder.
Beginning in the 1880s, Philadelphia immigrant population became more diverse, with significant populations of Italians, Russian and Eastern European Jews (particularly following the pogroms that were carried out in the early 1880s and 1900s), Hungarians, and Poles entering the mix. While earlier immigration groups were spread out throughout the city and surrounding areas, these newer groups tended to settle in ethnic enclaves.
Between 1880 and 1900, Philadelphia was the port of entry for 5.6% of immigration, but between 1910 and the advent of World War I in 1914 that statistic dropped to 4.8%. The immigration quotas set in 1924 put the brakes on immigration, particularly from southern and eastern European countries and in the post-World War I era, Philadelphia received less than 1% of the nation’s immigrants.
3. Health Inspections
Spurred by the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, in 1799 the Lazaretto quarantine station was built eight miles from the city. Ships were required to stop there for health inspections. The hospital had the capacity to house 500 patients. Infected clothing and bags could be disinfected by steam.
In 1884 a federal quarantine station was also set up on Reedy Island whereby passengers received screenings from both state and federal authorities. The duplicate screenings were ended in 1913 when a centralized inspection station opened at Marcus Hook, twenty miles from Philadelphia.
Despite the multiple inspections, Philadelphia didn’t turn away many immigrants. According to Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, “From 1901 to 1902, for example, of 17,175 arrivals in Philadelphia, though many were detained for questioning or investigation, only 107 were debarred from entering the country…” Only 26 of these were due to disease.
4. Immigration Stations
In the fifty years following 1873, in which the Red Star and American steamship lines began regular service, more than 1 million immigrants arrived at Philadelphia immigrant stations where they went through Customs. The Washington Avenue station where those two lines docked was especially busy. The Pennsylvania Railroad built an immigrant station on the wharves to receive the immigrants. In 1896 the immigrant station there was expanded to accommodate the increase in traffic, and other stations were built at piers on Fitzwater Street, Callowhill, and Vine Street. Just before World War I, a new immigrant station was being planned, but with the drop in immigration during the war, construction was halted. The Washington Avenue station was demolished in 1915 and from that point passengers were processed on board ships.
5. Immigrants Through Other Ports
Keep in mind that immigrants arriving in Philadelphia often moved on immediately following their arrival at the immigration stations/railroad depots. On the other side of the coin, immigrants living in Philadelphia often arrived through other ports, particularly the busier Port of New York, which was only 90 miles away, but presumably also through Baltimore which is about 100 miles southwest.
M. Mark Stolarik, ed. Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, “Chapter 2: Immigration Through the Port of Philadelphia,” by Fredric M. Miller, Comment by Philip Scranton (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Balch Institute Press, 1988.)
Philadelphia: Immigrant City, by Fredric M. Miller, Balch Online Resources
The Great Migration 1717-1754: The Ocean Crossing and Arrival in Philadelphia, excerpt from Pennsylvania Germans, A Persistent Minority by William T. Parsons
Entering America: The Washington Avenue Immigration Station
(The Philly History Blog)