Boston’s history as a port is long. Here are 5 things you might not know about the port of Boston.
1. Not that Popular Early On
Despite deep colonial roots, for most years Boston was not the port of choice for immigrants. Even the more distant port of New Orleans drew more immigration from Europe between 1828 and 1848. Initially the port thrived as a commercial shipping hub for industry. In 1840 the Cunard line began operating a route out of Liverpool to Halifax and Boston and immigration through the port began to climb slowly.
2. Many Went to Canada First
Coastal travel between Canada’s Maritime Provinces brought immigration from Canada, and also from Ireland. Passage from the UK was cheaper to Canada than to U.S. ports, and in the early 19th century, emigration from the British Isles to Canada was encouraged and at times subsidized. Many Irish immigrants took this route and then made their way to Boston (and other U.S. destinations) via coastal shipping routes.
3. Many Potato Famine Immigrants Chose Boston… and Stayed
Immigration through the port surged with the Irish potato famine. Between 1847 and 1854, Boston began drawing a minimum of 20,000 immigrants per year thanks to subsidized immigration from Britain via the Cunard Line. Even with British subsidies, the $17 to $20 fares left most with nothing once they arrived. With no money to travel further most of the Irish immigrants remained in Boston rather than moving on. By 1850, three quarters of the foreign-born residents of the city were Irish.
4. Eastern Europeans Joined the Mix in the Late 19th Century
Although the numbers fluctuated over the years, the Irish continued to dominate immigration to Boston through the latter part of the 19th century, as jobs in textile mills, shipyards, and ironworks represented better opportunities than were available in Ireland. In the 1880s, 1890s, and into the 20th century they were joined by growing numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Mediterranean Europe. Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms and poor living conditions in Eastern Europe also contributed to the surge.
5. The Processing Station Didn’t Process Everyone
In 1845, a customs house was constructed on Long Wharf at the terminus of State Street and this facility was used as an immigration processing station until the early 20th century. Only immigrants who needed to be detained due to paperwork or further examination were held at the station. Most were processed on the docks. By the early 20th century, a new facility was needed as the Long Wharf facility was deemed a fire hazard.
The East Boston Immigration Station, often referred to as “Boston’s Ellis Island,” opened in 1920 and operated until 1954. As with the previous station on Long Wharf, most immigrants were processed on the docks, but those requiring further examination were brought to the immigration facility. During World War II, it was also used as a temporary detention center for German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants before they were moved on to other detention centers.
East Boston’s Immigration Station (Boston.com)
Stolarik, M. Mark, ed., Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, Chapter 1, “Immigration through the Port of Boston,” by Lawrence H. Fuchs (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Balch Institute Press, 1988.)