Typical third – or economy – class travel is a lot cheaper nowadays than it was 100 years ago, or when the mass migrations overseas began in the mid 19th century. Most passengers only have to work a few days to pay for a ticket. The journey is much shorter too, counted in hours instead of days or weeks. The food onboard a flight must also be better than it was in steerage below deck of a transatlantic ship, but that’s not to be taken as a compliment for airline food! After a fleeting glance of an endless coastline seen through a break in the clouds, the first impression of the new world is one of a jumble of concrete structures rising above the runway tarmac, and planes like ours loading and unloading.
Third class passengers arriving to be processed at Ellis Island in New York harbour between 1892 and the middle of the 20th century got to see the Statue of Liberty as they made their way to this grandiose “arrival terminal”.
I waited about an hour to get through passport control. Large murals above the counters highlight the colourful multicultural mix of the United States – a country made great thanks to the blood, sweat and toil of millions of immigrants. Unique to the US, my fingerprints are taken, as is my photograph, before I’m allowed to proceed to baggage claim.
Unique to Ellis Island were the six-second medical examinations which included using a button hook to lift the eyelids of an immigrant to check for signs of the highly contagious disease, trachoma.
The new arrivals at Ellis Island waited hours to be processed, seated on benches in a crowded hall. Most didn’t speak English, were fearful of being separated from the other family members they were travelling with, and they desperately clung to their few belongings.
Ellis Island is now a tourist attraction belonging to the National Park Service, attracting about two million tourists each year, nearly double the number of immigrants who arrived in the busiest years in the early 20th century.
They come to hear the story of the immigrants. Many are first or second-generation immigrants themselves, or tourists from overseas.
They also come to admire the views of Manhattan. The skyline was much lower 100 years ago, but it must have been impressive nonetheless.
Many Italians – not Swiss-Italians – headed for what is known today as Little Italy in southern Manhattan. Mulberry Street in the centre of the neighbourhood was a beehive of activity.
It’s still a colourful place today…
…and a magnet for the millions of visitors New York now welcomes each year.