We hear a lot about the Port of New York because of the sheer volume of immigrants who passed through it. There’s so much focus on New York that it can be easy to forget about other important ports.
In my own family, my grandfather proudly told me how his father passed through Ellis Island. True to his word, I found a record of him arriving in October 1902. What he didn’t tell me, though, was that the New York arrival was his second—he had also arrived in July of that same year through the port of Baltimore. That arrival was especially interesting from a family history standpoint because he was traveling with his future brother-in-law.
Over the next few months, we’ll take a look at some of the other ports of entry to the U.S. But in honor of Great-Grandpa Szucs, today we start with Baltimore.
1. Colonial Immigration
The first immigrants arrived in Maryland in 1634 from England and Ireland on board the “Ark” and the “Dove.” Slaves from Africa were brought in great numbers to work the tobacco fields, and by the mid-1700s, they represented more than a quarter of Maryland’s population.
During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Baltimore was a bustling port for privateers. The fledgling U.S. government needed naval power and turned to the private sector. Letters of marque and reprisal (government licenses) authorized private ships to prey on merchant vessels sailing under enemy flags, in what amounted to legal piracy. Captured ships were brought to port, where they were condemned in the Admiralty Court and sold at auction. After taxes and court fees, the proceeds were split among the privateers at a pre-determined rate.
3. A Transportation Network is Born
During the 19th century, a robust transportation network began taking shape in Baltimore. By 1818, the National Road (also called Cumberland Road) linked Cumberland, Maryland, with Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). Baltimore completed a series of turnpikes in 1824 which ultimately connected the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) began serving passengers in the late 1820s and by 1852 had reached Wheeling as well. These inland transportation routes, coupled with Baltimore’s geographic location as the westernmost seaport on the East Coast, made Baltimore an attractive port of entry for immigrants seeking a route to the U.S. interior.
4. The Immigrants
Immigration waves through Baltimore reflected that of other eastern U.S. port cities, like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Irish famine immigrants began arriving in the late 1840s and continued to stream in during the ensuing decades. Even larger numbers of German immigrants were also arriving around this time. Other ethnic groups followed, although in smaller numbers.
In 1867, immigration jumped when the North German Lloyd Steamship line entered an agreement with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, allowing immigrants to purchase one ticket that would take them across the ocean to Baltimore and inland by train. Ships laden with tobacco, lumber, and cotton goods from Baltimore’s textile industries arrived in Bremerhaven and returned with European immigrants and goods. That year more than 10,000 people passed through the port, more than doubling the 4,000 immigrants of the previous year.
5. The Immigrant Experience
In 1868 immigrants began arriving at the new B&O piers at Locust Point. Immigration inspections required of steerage passengers were conducted on board the ships as they made their way into Chesapeake Bay. When they docked at the pier, immigrants could go directly to the B&O trains that would take them on the next leg of their journey.
For those who had to wait for trains, the Immigration Station contracted with Mrs. Augusta Koether who ran a large boarding house. She was paid 75 cents a day for each immigrant who stayed with her. According to Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, her boarding house was a haven for immigrants for close to half a century.
Immigration through Baltimore peaked at about 40,000 per year when World War I stopped the flow of immigration, but not before close to two million immigrants had passed through Baltimore’s port.
Search for your ancestors in Baltimore Passenger Lists.
M. Mark Stolarik, ed. Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, “Chapter 3: Immigration through the Port of Baltimore,” by Dean R. Esslinger (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Balch Institute Press, 1988.)