Baltimore’s Ellis Island

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Although New York City’s Ellis Island gets more attention for its status as a hub for immigrants, just behind it was the port of Baltimore. The newly-opened Immigration Museum in Locust Point honors the experience of the millions who came through the port here.

$15 – that was enough to start a new life in 1904.

That’s the average amount of money immigrants came over with in their pockets. Then, as now, people came to the United States for the same reason: to make money. The $40 or however much they paid for the voyage over was seen as an investment, one that would secure access to a higher-paying job. $15 would be enough to live on for just a few days, and then immigrants would get to work, either here in Baltimore, or after taking the Baltimore and Ohio railroad to another destination out West.

As Jacques Kelly reported in a recent profile of the Immigrant Museum, Charm City saw 1.2 million immigrants come in over the years. At one point, one quarter of all Baltimoreans spoke German as a native language. Germans were the largest ethnic group of immigrants, and became one of the wealthiest groups, along with Jewish immigrants from various nations in Europe.

Some of those German immigrants no doubt at one point stayed in the German Immigrant House – a boarding house where the Immigration Museum now stands. It was operated by a German Christian church in Baltimore to provide a place to stay for new arrivals who didn’t have family already in the area. Over time, the boarding house closed. Today it’s owned by the Locust Point Community Church, which uses the building as a school and church office. The upstairs have been primarily for storage — and even made a short stint as a haunted house for one particular Halloween (there’s still some leftover decorations upstairs, to the delight and horror of any would-be visitors who encounter the words ‘Help Me’ written in reddish paint on the walls, along with hand prints.) But even more recently, it’s been opened as the museum, with a small exhibit that gives visitors an overview of European immigrants’ experience in Baltimore.

Despite Baltimore’s importance as an immigration port, there’s little physical evidence of its history, as Nicholas and Brigitte Fessenden tell me. They’re the married couple partly responsible for the Museum coming together in the first place. A high-rise condo now stands on the site of the port itself, where new migrants would come in. Following their arrival, they’d be screened by doctors for trachoma, an eye disease. Many also were subject to an “imbecile test,” as The Sun reported in 1904. Those who didn’t pass were deported back to their native countries. But, as Nicholas Fessenden tells me, fewer than 1% of migrants were deported. (The shipping companies were held responsible for the cost of transporting migrants who didn’t pass muster back to Europe – as such, they had a strong incentive to screen people at the European border).

The Museum is a humble beginning to what the Fessendens hope will be a much larger longterm project to memorialize Baltimore’s immigrants. There’s tentative plans (funding permitted) to restore the rest of the house, turning the upstairs rooms into re-creations of what apartments would have looked like for the city’s various immigrant groups.