The chief motivators for the mass migration to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s included religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardship. Prior to his presidency, John F Kenney wrote that “There were probably as many reasons for coming to America as there were people who came.”
More than 12 million people passed through Ellis Island on their way to the promise of a better life in America. For many, it was a family affair. It was not unusual for an entire family to earn money for a single family member to make the trip. It was common for one member of a family to go to America first and then save money to bring the others over. From 1900 to 1910, almost 95 percent of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were joining either family or friends.
This was the case for many members of the Colosi and Bongiovanni family. Professor Angelo Colosi was meeting his sister’s son, Antonio Bongiovanni; Lucia Colosi was meeting a friend; and Rose Nester was meeting her husband, Domenic.
Getting to the port was the first step. Many traveled by train or wagon. Some even traveled by foot. Many times they would have to wait days and weeks at the port for the ship to arrive. Steamship companies were required by the governments to watch over prospective passengers. Most ports had private boarding houses.
After the immigration law of 1893, each passenger had to answer up to 31 questions before boarding the ship. These questions were recorded on the ship’s manifest. After 1900, in addition to a ticket, immigrants had to secure a passport from officials in their home country. Steamship lines were held accountable for medical examinations and vaccinations of the immigrants before departing the port. Disinfection of immigrants and baggage were routinely performed at the ports.
Once onboard, Steerage passengers walked past the tiny deck space, squeezed past the ship’s machinery and were directed down steep stairways into the enclosed lower decks. Only steerage passengers were processed at Ellis Island upon arrival to America.
Steerage was enormously profitable for steamship companies. Even though the average cost of a ticket was only $30, larger ships could hold from 1,500 to 2,000 immigrants, netting a profit of $45,000 to $60,000 for a one-way voyage.
But the experience of steerage was like a nightmare. At one time, the average passenger mortality rate was 10 percent per voyage. The conditions were so crowded, dark, and unsanitary that they were the main cause of America’s early immigration laws.
Once processing finished at Ellis Island, those with landing cards pinned on their clothes moved to the Money Exchange where cashiers exchanged gold, silver and paper money, from countries all over Europe, for American dollars. The day’s official rate was posted on a blackboard. For immigrants traveling to cities or towns beyond New York City, the next stop was the railroad ticket office where as many as 25 tickets per minute were sold.
When it was reasonably near the time for their train’s departure, they would be ferried on barges to the train terminals in Jersey City or Hoboken. Immigrants going to New England went on the ferry to Manhattan. They then would make arrangements for their trunks, which were stored in the Baggage Room at Ellis Island, to be sent on to their final destinations. Some still had more traveling ahead of them with many going as far as California. But whatever lay ahead, they knew at that point they had reached the land of promise.