Sunday, July 28, 2013

Gloucester City: Philadelphia's historic immigrant port of entry

Ask just about anyone where America's "Golden Door" of immigration stood in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they'll bring up Ellis Island. Most Americans, however, don't realize that there were several other, smaller immigration facilities at ports and border crossings around the country. Among them was the port of Philadelphia station at Gloucester City, New Jersey.

Gloucester City Immigration Station Hidden NJ
The former Gloucester City Immigration Station
is now home to a port-related business.
Standing rather plainly at the city's port, the three-story, white block building lacks the grandeur of its cousin near the Statue of Liberty. In fact, if you didn't know its history, you'd have no idea that it was anything more than a very sturdily-built office building. When I visited to get a lay of the land, I had to do a quick check on the smartphone to compare an old historic photo against the building before me. No plaques or notations give the casual passer-by any indication that within this structure, new arrivals were welcomed into the United States while others were detained before their inevitable deportation.

How did the Philadelphia immigration station end up in New Jersey? It seems to be the confluence of two classic issues: insufficient funding and a well-connected property owner. Immigration officials had long inspected ship passengers at a waterfront facility owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, expanding the building as the number of incoming vessels and immigrants grew. The city constructed a municipal inspection station at another pier as other shipping lines increased their immigrant transports.

Around the same time, federal officials were looking for ways to relieve overcrowding at Ellis Island, which was regularly seeing thousands more immigrants a day than it was designed to handle. By opening larger facilities at Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, officials hoped to shunt some of the traffic away from New York. Only problem was, the $250,000 that Congress allocated to open a new facility at Philadelphia was insufficient to buy any of the valuable port property on that side of the Delaware.

In a stroke of dubious luck, an ideal spot was located just on the other side of the river, in (you guessed it) Gloucester City. Politically-connected, headline-grabbing entrepreneur Billy Thompson just happened to own five acres of riverfront property he was willing to sell to the government for $100,000. The self-styled "Duke of Gloucester" was even willing to throw in his own home, an extravagant Victorian mansion which was repurposed as an administration building. The federal government erected the white building to handle the day-to-day tasks of processing new arrivals: inspection, detention, hearings and deportation.

Like its counterpart at Ellis Island, the building was hailed at its 1912 opening as state of the art, with outstanding sanitary conditions and dining facilities that surpassed those in many of the nation's hotels. Detained immigrants, it seemed, would be highly satisfied with their accommodations. On the other hand, no appropriation was made for the construction of a Public Health Service hospital like the one at Ellis; one has to believe that a small infirmary was housed within one of the buildings, with more serious cases sent to local hospitals.

To some degree, the immigration department's plan was a success: at one point, Gloucester City became the second busiest immigration station in the country. However, its prominence was short lived. The start of hostilities in Europe and the onset of World War II dramatically changed the purpose of the nation's immigration stations, and Gloucester's was no exception. Enemy aliens were sent there en route to internment camps in other parts of the country. Others, including crew members of ships bearing German or Italian flags, were held at the station for the duration.

The immigration station closed at the end of the war, and Thompson's old house was torn down in favor of buildings for a new Coast Guard training facility. By 1986, the Coast Guard had moved to newer digs in Philadelphia, leaving the Gloucester City property to stand vacant. Ironically, as Ellis Island was being restored and celebrated, its cousin on the Delaware was being left to rot.

The building's fate improved slightly when the city bought the property for $1 in 1991, as one of the port's larger tenants made the old immigration station its new offices. Nonetheless, plans were soon in the works to demolish the building in favor of a port revitalization program. Alarmed by the possibility of losing a vital landmark, local historians successfully petitioned the state to add the Coast Guard and Immigration Station to the New Jersey Register of Historic Places

It appears that the designation might have actually worked. The rededicated "Freedom Pier" is now home to the schooner North Wind, and if the "Summer 2012" banner I saw is to come true eventually, there will be a restaurant there, too. With any luck, the planned revitalization will get people curious about the history of that big white building and the people who once traversed through it.


4 comments:

  1. My Grandma entered through this port from Italy around 1919. It's ironic because my Pop (grandfather) came through Ellis in 1911 and the whole family grew in the NYC through upstate. I didn't know this until I moved to New Jersey in 1991- only about 5 miles from Gloucester City. I am going to share this with my 90 year old Dad - I am sure he'll enjoy.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your family's story, Gail. No doubt there were many immigrants who found their way to New York from Gloucester City -- imagine what a journey that must have been after the long ocean trip from Europe!

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  2. Only a very small number immigrants actually ever set foot at the Gloucester City Station. Immigrations officials would process the immigrants on board the vessels and would release the immigrants directly to Philadelphia. Only if the immigrants did not pass the screening process would they be transferred to the Gloucester City Station. Estimated less than 4000 immigrate actually landed at Gloucester City.

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    1. Patrick, thanks for the info! Please contact me at hiddennj@gmail.com . I'm hoping you can shed a little more light on some questions I have about the Gloucester City station. Thanks!

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