Sunday, January 6, 2013

From Ellis Island to the rest of America

I love running into signs like this:

Ellis Island, Jersey Central Railroad, Bloomsbury, NJ

Where is it, you wonder? Jersey City? Newark? Nope. It's in Bloomsbury, 60 miles west of the historic Immigration Station at Ellis Island. I was a bit taken aback, but not surprised, to find this marker on a ramble through Warren County. It kind of pops up out of nowhere, next to what was once a railroad right of way.

Visitors to Ellis Island learn about the arduous ocean passage that immigrants took in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, enduring cramped and often unsanitary conditions in steerage. There's talk about the post-inspection ferry ride to Manhattan or the Jersey Central rail terminal in nearby Communipaw Cove, but little to nothing is shared about what happened next.

All together, about 70 percent of the people who went through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 ultimately settled someplace outside New York City, so the demand for train passage was intense. Immigrants forged yet another link of what might be a lengthy journey to their final destination, perhaps several train transfers westward. Held in a separate room at the Jersey Central terminal until their trains were called, the new arrivals were often put into designated cars to separate them from the American travelers.

Finding this sign so far from Ellis gave me pause. As I stood at the roadside, so close to the path of the immigrant trains, I couldn't help but compare it to the wagon train paths that brought homesteaders westward to new claims and new lives in the 1800s. I wondered what the immigrants were thinking as they passed that very spot on their way to their new homes. Did America look the way they expected it would? Were they satisfied so far, or disappointed? Were they relieved to be on the train, past the inquisitive eyes of the government inspectors? Were they frustrated by the prospect of another long, tiring trip? Their feelings might be hidden in family stories or letters tucked in attics, or perhaps never shared at all.

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