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Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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Father is off to the Arctic for the third Peary expedition for his New York Explorers Club in the book, Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow. Father's ship passed an incoming transatlantic vessel packed to the railings with immigrants. Father relays the thought of "Yet aboard her were only more customers, for the immigrant population set great store by the American flag," (pg. 13). Most of these immigrants were found to be from Italy and Eastern Europe, and they were being taken to Ellis Island.

From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor. This harbor is located in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and it has been expanded from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres. Ellis Island developed from a small, sandy island that barely rose above the high tide mark, into a hanging site for pirates, a harbor fort, ammunition and ordinance depot named Fort Gibson, and finally into an immigration facility. Prior to 1890, the individual states regulated immigration into the United States. Castle Garden in the Battery served as the New York State immigration station from 1855 to 1890 and approximately eight million immigrants passed through its doors. But tensions rose in the late 19th century in Europe and began to fuel the largest mass human migration in the history of the world. And it soon became fact that Castle Garden was ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the growing numbers of immigrants arriving yearly.

The Federal government took over the operation and constructed a new Federally-operated immigration station on Ellis Island. The new structure, built out of "Georgia pine" opened January 1, 1892. There is no explanation for what occurred five years after the opening on Ellis Island, but during the evening of June 14, 1897, a fire on Ellis Island, burned the immigration station completely to the ground. Although no lives were lost, many years of Federal and State immigration records dating back to 1855 burned along with the pine buildings. The United States Treasury ordered the immigration facility be replaced under the one very important condition that all future structures built on Ellis Island had to be fireproof. On December 17, 1900, the new Main Building was opened and 2,251 immigrants were received that day.

Between 1870 and 1900, the city became a symbol of a new America to which people flocked, drawn by economic opportunity and the promise of a more exciting life. Thousands upon millions of immigrants up and left for a country they heard had economic opportunities for jobs and a better life. They practiced different religions and brought new and strange cultural ideas with them. They started schools and churches and adapted themselves to American culture while keeping their own culture. They found much to admire in American democracy and took enthusiastically to politics and education, areas from which they had generally been excluded in their countries. But these immigrants from all over the world were generally unwelcome by American citizens.  This can be seen in Father’s reaction to seeing them on the passing ship.  With no enthusiasm about seeing them, it shows he cares little for the immigrants taking the jobs and crowding the cities.

The first group most unwelcome were the Irish Catholics. They began to come to the United States in large numbers in the early 19th century as economic conditions, the most terrible of which was the potato famine, plagued the Irish people. With such a large group of Irish Catholics flooding the cities, people became very hostile towards the group, even going as far as putting up signs saying "Dogs and Irish keep out!". Even though the Irish Catholic did come to America in such a large group, the quantity of all the immigrants that came to the states was taking over the cities. With the need for cheap labor in America and the "American dream" as aspiration for all immigrants cities grew beyond capacity. The newcomers found themselves jammed into tenements, crowded apartments and shoddy houses with few sanitary facilities. Yet immigrants continued to come in pursuit of the American dream. Meanwhile the cities grew both outward and upward. Tenement houses holding hundreds of families sprang up in the poorer sections of cities, and sanitary facilities, utilities, and other sources of domestic comfort were unable to keep up with the demand. Oppressive labor conditions and unsteady employment also caused crime to flourish, and police forces were not yet equipped to keep up with the spreading problem.

At that time, the doors were starting to be closed on immigrants trying to come to America to live the dream. But soon the economy leveled out during what was called the Progressive Era, and the immigrants that continued to flood in were able to be absorbed into society.



Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 September 2011 10:04  


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