After spending another night aboard the RMS Umbria in steerage, third class passengers waited for the officers of the custom-house to show up. We were then queued up on the dock while they went through our luggage looking for contraband. I asked exactly what they were searching for, but I got a nasty look.
Once that was finished, we were loaded on a barge and towed out to Ellis Island. Everyone was eager to get to land at last. A dock really doesn’t count as land. Since most of Ellis Island is landfill, I’m not sure if it really counts as land either. You are on “American soil” but you really aren’t officially in America until you have been passed through here. It’s a bit of an ambiguous limbo.
The people in steerage were very nervous. They had heard horror stories of families spending everything, and then being deported back. I of course could not point out that history estimates only 2% were ever deported--since how could I know history that hasn’t been made yet.
We were loaded off the barge onto the dock at Ellis Island, and directed into the main building. The building on Ellis Island in 1893 is a huge structure made of Georgia pine. It looks like a warehouse. When it burns down in 1897 it will be replaced with a much grander looking brick building that is still there.
Our first stop was the baggage room. They offered to take any baggage and hold it for us. They would give us a baggage claim slip. When I elected to keep my carpet bag, they shrugged, and made no protest. Apparently this was meant as a service rather than mandatory.
Next was the medical inspection. The doctor looked us over in just a couple of minutes. As I stood in line I heard screaming ahead. A nurse was trying to lead off a small child while his mother was crying. My computer translated the woman’s Italian. She was pleading with them not to take away her child, for he was all she had left. He was her world. A translator came running over and explained to her that they were not taking the child away permanently. The little boy was being taken to the infirmary, because he appeared sick. When he was well he would be released.
This might seem cruel, but I can see why America wouldn’t want a contagious child on her shore to spread his illness. Keeping him until he was well seemed kinder than just shipping him back to Italy. Indeed considering that he might end up in substandard housing where he would just get sicker, the officials could be saving the lads life. I don’t know what the medical facilities are like now, but in 1902 the island will be expanded to hold a 22 building hospital complex. It will be one of the most modern hospitals in the country.
I am in perfect health, so when it was my turn I confidently stepped up. When the doctor was finished he drew an “E” on my jacket and pointed me to another line. I asked why. He said I was wearing spectacles and my eyes would have to be tested to make sure I could see well enough to hold down a job. How could I tell him I don’t need my glasses, that they are just a disguised video camera. I meekly did as I was told.
I stood in line for hours. Before they could get to me, I was told the doctor had left for the day. He would test my eyes in the morning. Would I have to go back to the ship? Could I get a hotel and come back in the morning? I was told I would have to stay on the Island tonight. What?
I had read it took 3-5 hours to go through Ellis Island. It would take me two days? I checked my computers records. It’s been estimated 1 in 5 were detained for a day…or week…or month. At least they fed me and my fellow prisoners. They took us to a huge cafeteria. We again lined up to receive stew on a tin plate, along with bread. No sign of tea.
They also have rooms with bunk beds for us, or maybe bunk cots is a better word. There were not enough blankets to go around. I’m hoping they at least have enough for the children. I don’t know if I will get much sleep with the raucous snoring of a hundred men or so. Yesterday I was disappointed I couldn’t get on Ellis Island, and now I’m disappointed I can’t get off.
Still I suppose this offers me an opportunity to see parts of Ellis Island I wouldn’t have normally. This is just an inconvenience for me, but what about all these other chaps. They must be terrified that they will be deported back to a place where they have no hope. At least I know I will get out eventually.
If only they had tea.