Saturday, July 3, 2010

Seven - Ellis Island

Maria arrived at Ellis Island about a year and six months after the opening day of the new main building, which replaced an earlier one that had been destroyed by fire. On that first day, December 17, 1900, 2,251 immigrants were received. About the same number would be received along with Maria, the day she reached America.

They were transported from the Hudson River dock on a barge. There were no seats, no food, and no water. As she looked over the rail, Maria had her first view of Ellis Island.

“Ellis Island” she heard others near her say, as they pointed.

“A world of new beginnings,” Maria thought.

È un mondo liberare; it’s a free world,” someone else said happily, in Italian, as if they had read her mind.

Maria had lost sight of Rocco di Gioro and Maria Peloso and her children in the crowds. While still aboard the Patria, they had promised to send one another word of how they were, once they had reached their destinations. With smiles and hugs she had bid the little Peloso children farewell. Now, she was alone in a vast group who were moving toward--who knew what?

As she looked at the building where they were going, she saw the long pier, the tall flagpole with the American flag, and the red brick complex of buildings trimmed with crisp white limestone and granite, the main one with four dome-topped towers, all of it vaguely ecclesiastical. Maria stared as the official looking building with large arched windows grew steadily, slowly larger. There were fishes on the tops of the towers; leaping fishes! Or were they waves? There were finials and flagpoles at the tops of the domes. There were big round globes at the corners of the building. It looked like something out of a dream.

It was exhilarating to be off the barge and on the dock. Maria’s sense was that people were glad to be there, but also frightened. Anxious about what would happen next. Few looked back to the towers of New York city. They looked forward, each one wearing identification or landing tag on their chests, each with an all-important number.

The people all seemed to have a renewed energy as they moved forward. It was a sense of people hurrying, carrying luggage, mostly large satchels, wicker hampers and bushel baskets, with pots and pans, other useful household items. More of the people had large duffle bags or sacks into which were placed all their belongings. The men wore what passed in every country as their one and only suit for important occasions, funerals and weddings. The women, too, wore their best dresses, aprons, kerchiefs. Like Maria, they had kept their good things hidden away until this day, when they wanted to look their best in honor of their arrival in their new country and to pass through the inspection station with as little fuss as possible.

One woman hurrying near her carried a kitchen chair. Another had a bundle so big and lumpy, Maria wondered if there were not one or two children hidden inside of it. But the woman held it with only one arm as if weighed no more than a few hens. Yet another carried her bag on her head so as not to be jostled by the crowd. Maria could sense that all of their baggage, like her own, was quite heavy, but no one seemed to be straining. These were strong, sturdy, and excited people. They spoke Italian and dozens of other languages Maria could not identify but their words were few and delivered in hushed undertones, except for, here or there, a mother who urged a bewildered looking child to stay close by.

The throng moved almost as one, as if choreographed. They carried Maria along as they neared the great building. She looked up and saw carved eagles and bundles of fruit in the stonework. The sculpted stone face of a man with ram’s ears stared down at her from one of the archways; or was it a woman? At first, Maria decided it looked like the face of the sixteen year old Statue of Liberty with her strong jaw, squared nose, deep set eyes and pouting mouth. Then again, it made her think of Lucia and Grazie and even of her fabulous knight, Jacuvill, back in Noepoli. Maria should have felt quite alone as she neared the immigration station. But she did not mind being alone; the stones were smiling upon her. Maria could not believe she was almost there.

A man in a smart uniform and cap—official in his bearing but not frightening; he had a friendly kind of a smile, she thought—kept pointing the crowd in the proper direction—to the right—between two uprights—made of stone on which stood columns holding up a porch roof. Everything looked tidy, organized, and orderly—except for a large ladder someone had left leaning to one side of the building, as if some kind of work was still underway or some cleaning project had gone unfinished.

Soon she found that she was standing in a line, single file. In front of her stood a man a head taller than herself with a full brown beard and a trim hat. His fine overcoat and shoes were a cut above most of the other men’s. The woman Maria took to be his wife, just in front of him, was shorter than Maria, and stout in her checkered skirt that swept to the floor and a dark long-sleeved blouse with pretty buttons down the front. These looked like people of substance, importance. Marie considered her own attire and wondered how she would look to the officials, by comparison.

Maria’s clothing was lighter and of a brighter hue than the others near her. A pale colored dress, between blue and lavender made up of very small checks that showed only up close. From a distance the dress looked as if it were a solid color. There was a squared-yoke on the blouse, trimmed with some bits of lace all around, and a white apron to match her white scarf on her head. It was all of the sort of stuff that made a girl feel happy and pretty. But here and now, she felt much less substantial. She realized that the quality of the fabric was poorer than she might have wished—the ruffled edge of lace, on the bodice of her blouse, which her mother had taken so carefully from an old chest and stitched there so daintily for this very moment in Maria’s journey, looked a flimsy in this place where, depending on one word from an official, she might be sent all the way back to Italy.

Behind her were two young men with very dark faces, and short cropped hair. Darker than any of the men of the fields of home ever became after laboring long through the hot summer. One had a large metal basin, as big as a small bathtub. Whatever for? The other had a plaid woolen blanket wrapped round his neck and shoulders like a shawl. They spoke not a word, so she could form no guess where they had come from. A girl about Maria’s age stood between them, but did not seem to be with them. She was as pale as the moon and wore a dress of some heavy paisley fabric with a stiffly starched apron and a large white scarf on her head. She clutched a small valise that shone with the evidence of much polish, as did her trim leather boots. Such boots!. Marie looked down at her own feet, in cloth shoes, no sturdier than slippers. What had she been thinking, to have dressed this way?

“Move ahead, please,” a voice somewhere in front of them called loudly.

The sound startled Maria but she did not understand. No matter. The others shuffled forward, as did Maria. Further behind her she saw another couple, these looking to her mind very American indeed. The man with a short white beard, the woman in a tailored wool traveling jacket. They spoke quietly to each other but were far enough behind Maria that she could hear not a word.

“Men to the right, if you please, and women to the left.” The same voice announced. “Nothing to fear, you will catch up with one another very soon.”

There was a silhouette over two gates, one of a man and the other of a woman, the people did as they were told, going to the proper gate, men to the right and women to the left, even though most of them did not know a word of English. Yet they all knew the excitement of the journey and the future filled with hope. Maria found herself between the woman in checks and the girl with the lovely boots.

“Pergunto-me como longo ele nos tomará? I wonder how long it will take us?” the girl behind her said to her but in a tongue Maria did not understand. Maria smiled at her and slowly shook her head.

“Non so; I do not know,” she replied, meaning she did not know what the other had asked.

Eu não sei,” the girl nodded as she answered. She looked Maria in the eyes and then she did a strange and lovely thing. She stretched out her hand, and grasped Maria’s own, giving it an almost imperceptible squeeze. Maria squeezed her hand in return. They stood waiting, hand in hand, inching forward, joined by their common experience.

“Sisters?” a matronly looking woman in uniform asked them. She asked it in several more languages. “Hermanas? Schwestern? Irmãs? Sorelle?” At last the girls understood and shook their heads, no.

“Very well,” the woman said, “step forward one at a time.” She pointed to a sign with the same instructions in many languages. One of the phrases on it was in Italian; Maria read it, let go of the hand of her new friend regretfully, and did as she was told. Up a staircase with her belongings.

A woman in a starched white uniform was next. A nurse? Doctor? Maria was giving a quick but thorough physical examination. More notes. She seemed to be in reasonably good health. No anemia. No goiters. No varicose veins. Noted. The Ellis Island inspection process continued.

Now Maria was in a huge room, 189 feet long and 102 feet wide with a 60-foot-high vaulted ceiling, with arched windows both below and high on the upper portions of the walls. It was built like a church, but instead of chapels and altars, the vast interior was filled with long benches and partitions made of white piping. A balcony ledge ran all round the upper floor of the building and here and there stood a man who watched the comings and goings of all the arrivals.

This was the Registry Room. The diagonal pattern of the red tile floor shone with the light of the big half-circle windows. Looking out through one of them, she could see the Statue of Liberty in the distance, still holding up her torch, but she looked as if she had turned away. The white tile on the walls went as high as her head. Everything gleamed and sparkled. Maria gazed up at the great chandelier, like a golden pendant with its pale alabaster globes, one huge encircled by eight smaller, so beautiful. Like a flower, an Ellis Island flower. Even overhead, the buff colored vaults of the ceiling were completely covered with a herringbone pattern shimmering tile.

As Maria admired the golden glow of the tile vaulting, she noticed one particular man at the railing high above her. His mouth moved, as if in a whisper. No one stood next to him. Was he talking to himself? She looked round the balcony. On the other side, another man stood nodding as if he had heard every word, then talked in the same way, as in a whisper. How very strange that here in America, one could converse in a whisper across such a vast room, where everything was made for order and freshness.

All around Maria were the others, arriving here in just this same way, with almost nothing but the hope for a better life. The room looked like a costume ball, with the many hued, multi-colored native costumes. Maria was among hundreds, maybe thousands of others, being asked important questions in a language that they couldn't understand. Examined for psychological and medical fitness. Maria was questioned as were they all. What were her financial resources? She showed them, produced from deep inside a hidden pocket. Ten dollars, and a train ticket to Pittsburgh? Noted down. What was her ability to find a productive life in the United States? Haltingly she explained. The official listened. Nodded. Repeated.

“You will live and work for your brother who runs a rooming house?” Maria nodded.

“The manifest says Box 137 Harmarville, Pennsylvania, correct?” Maria nodded again and it was noted down. “Are you an anarchist?" Maria shook her head. Another notation. These and so many more questions.

Maria’s papers were read and reread. They seemed to be in order. The ship's manifest or passenger list (filled out at the port of embarkation) was consulted. It contained Maria's name and her answers to numerous questions at the time of sailing. This document was read by the immigration inspectors as they cross examined Maria during the primary inspection. Time dragged on. Two, three hours. By now, long arching pools of afternoon light stretched across the red tile floor.

Throughout the long ordeal, Maria was treated courteously and respectfully. And then it was over. Maria was told she was free to begin her new life in America! After only a few short hours on Ellis Island! She was pointed toward a stairway, divided into thirds by railings.

“Take the side to the right, please,” an official pointed. Maria began to descend the stairs. Others were descending with her, to the right and left. And then, someone was told to go down the center section of the stairway. Maria heard tears and cries. She looked and saw a woman in a gorgeous Chianti colored jacket, ruffled lace at the neck, skirt of a golden hue embroidered with pink rosettes and a deep lace hem. There were the initials CT chalked on the jacket. Maria did not know it, but these stood for “Trachoma”. The woman was nearly doubled over in tears as she held out her hand to a man on the far left side of the staircase. He too, looked distraught, their arms reaching across the barrier of the railing.

These were the infamous Stairs of Separation. About two percent of the arriving immigrants were not as fortunate as Maria. Their papers were not in order or something about their health would keep them from entry in to the country. Perhaps the doctor had discerned some contagious disease that would endanger the public health. Maybe the legal inspector thought the immigrant might become a burden to society. The central lane and doorway were reserved for those who were refused entry, for reasons of health, or lack of money, or missing information.

So it was; by the time they reached the lowest step, the woman in the velvet jacket would be separated her loved one. They walked down the stairs together, with the railing between them. For now, it would be the last time they would see each other. Maria wondered if it would be or months, or forever? She felt the sting of tears in her own eyes, in sympathy for their plight. Just then, she reached the bottom of the stairs and went through the doorway and found herself being directed toward her next adventure—the trains.

When Maria arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, speaking no English, she had pinned to her coat a piece of paper that had two words written on it--Pittsburgh and Harmarville. These were to show the train conductors. The hope was that she could manage to select the correct train from Ellis Island to Pittsburgh—which would get her most of the way to the end of her journey. Then, from Pittsburgh, she would take a much shorter ride up the Allegheny River Valley to the little community of Harmarville, where her brother and sister-in-law lived.

Maria showed the side of the card marked Pittsburgh to several official looking people, and they pointed her in the direction of the trains. She moved forward, along with the throngs who were moving as one into the foremost rail transportation nucleus for incoming immigrants. They had managed to pass beyond the symbolic welcome of the Statue of Liberty; they had endured the timely and confusing ordeal of being processed at Ellis Island by people they could scarcely understand.

Now these exhausted women, beleaguered men and anxious children would embark anew, on trains that would carry them into the heart of the nation.

One such train would take Maria across New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the gritty city of Pittsburgh. Her train had a section of seven cars set aside for the immigrants. It was packed full of curious people and an assortment of colorful baggage. Hundreds of them were making Pittsburgh their destination. Work was to be had there, in the mills and mines and factories. Some, like Maria, were going to meet up with family members who had gone on before them. Others were going on the glimmer of a hope that a job would be available when they arrived. Italians, Poles, Czechs, Russians and Slavs made up the majority of passengers on this particular train.

As Maria looked at her fellow passengers, she saw that the men were stocky, strong and seemed eager to set to work, to make their fortune, or at least, to provide for them and theirs in a way that would have been impossible back home. Almost universally they were dressed in black suits and more often than not wore soft caps on their heads. The women were clad demurely, in dark hued dresses with long sleeves and hems that swept the aisles, many with aprons over them, and nearly all of them wore a sciarpa, or sikmé seříznutí, a шарф or szalikiem or fular—in any language, in any color, print or cut, the head scarf, the babushka.

Many of the smaller boys were dressed in sailor suits, popular in those days, with double breasted buttons and neckerchiefs. The older boys were dressed like the men and it was not unusual that they wore ties at the necks of their shirts, like their fathers.

The girls were diminutives of the older women, in attire and demeanor. They all had baskets to bear under an arm, and many had bundles made of a bedspread or quilt to hoist and carry over both shoulders like an improvised backpack.

“Where were they all going?” Maria wondered. As well she might. Some were on their way to the coke ovens of Connellsville, where Frick’s hegemony held sway. Others were bound for the Carnegie steel mills, where tensions were running high in this era following the Homestead strike. Others were going on to places like Gary and Chicago. Some, and these were mostly the Scandinavians in the trains, were bound even farther, to farmlands in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Maria was bound for Harmarville, which, until now, was a place utterly unknown to her except in those descriptions in her brother’s letters home.

Maria’s vision of it was a place not unlike the valley of the River Sinni she had left behind. In this she was only partially correct. What overlay the land in her familiar regions of Italy were centuries of traditions and a uniformity of culture that both enveloped and smothered the soul. In Harmarville, things were too new for that kind of tradition. The farthest back anyone would recall would be the time of Chief Guyasuta, the great leader of the Seneca’s, when the visitors of European origin met him in the 1700s.

Guyasuta had served as a scout for a young surveyor from the Virginia colony, who had been sent on a mission to Fort LeBoeuf. This surveyor, Washington by name, had enlisted the skill of Guyasuta, literally, to learn the lay of the land. It was in 1753 that the men had formed a respectful friendship as they traipsed through the woodland valleys of the great Allegheny River. This friendship was deepened when Washington and his fellow emissary Christopher Gist met with a mishap that could have ended both their mission and their lives.

Having completed their mission, Washington and Gist were returning to Virginia. While some of their native guides had insisted they wait, Major Washington insisted on travelling on in the biter cold weather. Logging 18 miles in one day, Washington was exhausted. The cold was relentless, the small streams were frozen and they could hardly get water to drink. At two in the morning they began again, and went as far as Murtheringtown, on Beaver Creek, under the same grueling conditions. The next day they traveled as far as the Allegheny River, where they built a raft. Gist's fingers became frostbitten in the process.

As they attempted to cross the Allegheny, Washington was thrown from the raft, whose pole had been hit by a mass of ice. As the story is sometimes told, it was Guyasuta who fished him out of the frigid water, or variously, gave aid to the men when they abandoned the raft and landed on Wainwright’s Island. It was December 29, 1753. Although she could not know it, Maria was headed for a place, just slightly upriver from the spot where Washington nearly drowned.

A squatter named Daniel Sweeney, considered the first setter of Harmarville, arrived in 1794. He tended his fields and lived in a rudimentary blockhouse near the Indian town at Harmarville. In 1798 he sold his claim to a man named Brewster, who in 1835 sold it to the Barton family who still owned the portion of the land called Barton’s Island. Other early settlers were named Enoch, Davis and Pillow.

And then there were the Dennys, whose farm encompassed much of Harmarville. Old General Ebenezer Denny had been a hero of the Revolution and the first mayor of Pittsburgh. His son Harmar Denny, for whom Harmar Township and Harmarville were named, had served as a US congressman.

The Dennys had operated a grist and sawmill on their place, but it had long since crumbled with age and disappeared from memory. The little Presbyterian Church they had helped to establish was still there, as were farm fields. But the Harmar Station and the nearby Harmar Coal Mine were the main features of interest to any new arrival from Europe. There along Guys Run, which had been named for Chief Guyasuta, could be found the company houses of the Harmar mine, and the mine itself.

Company housing was both the bane and the blessing of the mill or mine worker. On the one hand, company housing provided a place that was reasonably new, near the mine or mill, for the worker and his family to live. Some company housing truly was “model housing” and provide the latest in sanitation and cleanliness. However, some unscrupulous owners took advantage of workers, charging them more than what they would have to pay elsewhere for less in the way of comfort and cleanliness.

Better known examples of company housing included the town of Pullman Illinois where the homes of the 1880s provided running water, gas and garbage disposal. The company exercised complete control of their housing. Because they owned it, they set the rent and they screened and evicted tenants. With coal companies, "patch towns" sometimes complete with houses, schools, and churches, were built as close to the mine as possible. Then, the rents, as well as the cost of items from the company store were deducted from the miner’s pay. Often, as the song said, the miners owed their souls to the company store. Another coal song put it this way:

"Pick! Pick! Pick!
In the tunnel's endless gloom,
And every blow of our strong right arm
But helps to carve our tomb.”

The normal pattern was for mine companies to built better homes for supervisors and cheaper ones for the workers.

Some workers—and some would say the smart workers—found alternatives to company housing. These alternate choices consisted chiefly of renting a non-company home; the cost of doing this meant having three generations of extended family, or unrelated people, sharing in the cost. The other choice was becoming a boarder in a boarding house, but this was possible only if one were male and single.

Maria’s brother and his wife ran a big boarding house in Harmarville, where single male miners could live, if not in privacy, at least at some small remove from the omnipresent mine hierarchy. When they were not at their grueling subterranean work, they had a bed, and board and perhaps glimpse some sunshine and experience some quiet joy.

Maria had read about the boarding house in her brother's letters home. She knew from what he had told her that the house was not new by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a red brick building that had sat along the Freeport Road for more than a half century. The place had been built solidly enough but over the years had seen so many alterations that no one could quite describe what period or style it exemplified. The main unchanging features of the house were the crow-step gable ends which made the house look vaguely Dutch in inspiration, and stood out in contrast to the lower, less ambitious company row houses that stood near by it. All of them were perched on the edge of the north bank of the Allegheny River across from the town of Oakmont. They had been built close by the site where Jonathan Hulton and his family had run a ferry service for years, one of the few places one could cross the broad river in Allegheny County.

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