Pier 53 in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century. The Philadelphia immigration station at the end of Washington Avenue on the Delaware River (now known as the Washington Avenue Pier) existed from 1870 until it was torn down in 1915. Here are excerpts from Fredric Miller's Philadelphia: Immigrant City.

In 1873 the establishment of two modern steamship companies ushered in a fifty-year period of active immigration, during which just over a million immigrants arrived in the city and Philadelphia resumed its place as the fourth largest immigrant port in the country.

The more important of the two companies, the American Line, was founded with support from the Pennsylvania Railroad and opened in the city's first immigrant station at a railroad-owned pier at the foot of Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia. Although it began serving New York in the 1890s, the American Line never abandoned Philadelphia, adding ships with such local names as the Kensington, Southwark, Haverford and Merion to the Philadelphia run around the turn of the century. By then the American Line's prosperity was firmly based on the new waves of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe who sailed to America from British ports.

Pier 53 wharves from an 1887 engraving

 

It transported most of the roughly 20,000 immigrants arriving in Philadelphia each year between 1880 and 1910. After World War I the line briefly resumed immigrant service from Liverpool, but when the United States severely curtailed immigration in 1924, the service came to a halt.
Encouraged by the success of both the American Line and its major local competitor, the Red Star Line, which connected Philadelphia with the Continent directly through Antwerp, Belgium, larger companies extended service to the city. In 1898 the major German company, the Hamburg-American Line, started a run between Hamburg and Philadelphia which drew directly on the great Jewish and Polish migrations. Between 1910 and 1914, at the height of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Philadelphia was the third most important immigrant port in the country.

The station became one of the most colorful places in Philadelphia. Inside was a part of the examination room called the 'Altar'. Since under some conditions single women were prevented from landing, many hurried unions were celebrated on the spot.

The fifty years of large scale immigration naturally had a profound effect on the city's immigration facilities. Philadelphia required almost all ships from abroad between the spring and the fall to stop first for a health inspection at the Lazaretto in Essington, eight miles downriver from the city. Vessels carrying passengers with infectious diseases could be isolated for up to several months at a complex that included a hospital capable of housing 500 patients. In 1919 the state ended its inspection service. In any case, Philadelphia had been more than adequately protected against imported diseases and after 1865 experience no epidemics of the cholera present in many European ports.


Top photo shows placement of immigration station at Columbus Boulevard and Delaware Avenue as it would have appeared in 1900, superimposed on the current site. Base photo by Google.
First column top photo by Kathy Martin. Bottom photo: engraving of landing place of European steamers and Pennsylvania Railroad Station, circa 1887. Reproduced from Tariff of Immigrant Clearing House Committee, 1887.
Third column: Hamburg-American Line poster from the Philadelphia Maritime Museum.

 

Hamburg=American Line poster

Almost all immigrants made their first contact with America at the piers and immigrant stations...for most who came through Philadelphia this was their only contact with the city, for relatives or employers took them elsewhere. From the 1870's through the early 1920's the area around the Washington Avenue wharves where the American and Red Star Lines docked...was an area of warehouses, factories, sugar refineries, freight depots, and grain elevators, all connected to the vast yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Outside there was usually a crowd of entrepreneurs eager to charge the newcomers exorbitant rates for a variety of needed and unneeded services.

The railroad owned the wharves, and because it effectively controlled the immigrant traffic, in the 1870s it had constructed a two-story facility for receiving immigrants. Having already had their medical examinations downriver, at Washington Avenue the immigrants passed through customs inspections and then went downstairs to a ticket office and reception area from where they could board trains and leave the city.

About the Author: Frederic Miller was at the National Endowment for the Humanities. He held a Ph.D. (1972) and MLS (1973) degrees from the University of Wisconsin and was co-founder and co-director of the Public History Program at Temple University in Philadelphia. He co-authored Still Philadelphia: A Photographic History, 1890-1920, and has written several articles about British and Philadelphia social history, archival theory, and management.