My latest assignment is to record Ellis Island’s first Main Building that existed between 1892 and 1897. The wooden structure will burn down in 1897 and will be replaced by the lovely familiar brick building. Rather than just riding by the island on a ferry, I convinced the Institute of Time Travel to allow me to pose as an immigrant and go through Ellis Island.
They were against this for I’m not allowed to change history, but I pointed out that I would hardly be remembered among the nearly half a million who went through Ellis Island in 1893. Few people make lasting friendships on voyages. I would be lost in the crowd.
Not all immigrants went through Ellis Island. First and second class would be processed on board at their arrival. So I will be traveling Third Class, or Steerage for the RMS Umbria with the Cunard Steamship Company, Ltd.
I arrived Saturday morning at the landing stage. There were hundreds of people there. I was surprised to find so many foreigners there were, mostly Scandinavians, many dressed in their native costumes. Liverpool was just another stop on their way to America. There were also a few Scotsmen, plenty of Irish, some Welsh and of course, Englishmen. Add to that Americans on their way home.
We were loaded on a paddlewheel and taken to where the Umbria sat in anchorage. We were unloaded and herded on board and then down steep stairs to the inner bowels like we were cargo rather than passengers. Several rooms were set aside for steerage. I was sent to room #1, set aside for all English speaking single males. Foreign men were put in another section. Families had a room. At the far end was the room for single females, carefully guarded by a stern looking matron.
The 100+ capacity room was all metal and had been swabbed down. In the middle were long tables and benches. Against the walls were metal bunks. Perhaps shelves is a better word. It was two tier with a lip to hold the bedding--a thick layer of fresh straw as opposed to mattresses. These are wide enough to hold five men each.
Between each “bed” is just a thin metal bar, marking out a 18” territory for each passenger. At the foot of each space lay a folded wool blanket. Atop that sat a tin plate, cup and silverware. I tossed my beat up second hand carpetbag I had bought for this journey onto my space. To be as unnoticed as possible, I picked an uncontended spot--on top and in the middle.
We then were then herded back on deck. Steerage is confined to the lowest deck on the ship. Above us was the upper decks, reserved for first and second class passengers. They did not mingle with steerage. I noticed people above looking down and pointing at us. I think we are going to be part of the entertainment.
We were told to wait for a medical inspection. We all stood there in a queue in the hot sun waiting for the surgeon to arrive. We were then moved through. The medical exam took only a minute, as the doctor looked me over rather superciliously. Beyond him stood a detective, no doubt looking for anyone acting like they were running from the law. The Russian Jewish family behind me looked nervous. They are running from the law in their own country. Here in Britain being Jewish isn’t a crime.
The steamship blew it’s deep whistle, and we began to move. Everyone waved goodbye to those waiting on the docks. This was more than Bon Voyage. Many were saying goodbye forever. There was a mix of excitement and sadness amid the passengers around me.
At noon we were fed dinner which consisted of soup, meat, potatoes and bread. A scan showed nothing questionable in the food. I was expecting hard tack or worse. The meal was quite good, if simple. However the service had much to be desired. Meals are dipped out of buckets and slung onto our plates like the steward was slopping pigs. More than one chap commented on the fact that the crew treated us like cattle. True, but at least they treat us humanely.
We are allowed to go above any time we like, as long as we stay on our own deck. The deck was covered with people, most preferring the salt air to stuffy steerage below. There were a few benches, no deck chairs, and we sat or leaned where best we could. I leaned on the rail and watched Liverpool slowly disappear.
In the evening we were fed bread, butter and tea. No one complained. For many in this era the midday meal is the main one. I was happy to get some tea--even if it wasn’t the highest quality.
People drifted off to their allotted spaces to sleep. The fellow next to me brought onions, bragging they were a sure cure for seasickness. He later proved the theory wrong. He, like too many, did not make it to a convenient place first. I see now why the steamship company uses straw instead of mattresses.
I wish I could have passed out my seasickness pills, but I’m not allowed to share future medicine. The seasickness did not add anything appealing to the smell of too many bodies seeing too little soap. I got a couple of hours sleep, but the noise of dozens of men snoring woke me up. I came up on deck at midnight. Some other chaps were already up here, dozing. I may just spend the night up here myself.
Ah well, it’s an adventure, right? May not be the most comfortable, but at least I’m in no real danger.