Dock of Ages

Stories from Philadelphia’s immigration station, where a million+ new lives began.

Did you know Philly had an “Ellis Island”? Pier 53, South of Penn’s Landing, was the city’s first immigrant station, opened in 1873 by the American Line steamship company and the Pennsylvania Railroad. During its heyday, it was the country’s third most important immigration port, located off Columbus Boulevard at Washington Avenue.

Also known as the Washington Avenue Immigration Station, this facility processed approximately one million immigrants from across Europe. The station had ticket booths, medical facilities, and a large waiting room for the newcomers. For more than 40 years, it was a “Golden Door” for many families and individuals seeking new opportunities.

Though technically there were federal regulations barring “paupers and criminals” as well as screenings for several contagious diseases, in reality very few immigrants were turned away here in Philly. For instance of 17, 175 arrivals in one record, barely 100 were detained. When finally enforced, rules tended to be cruel and arbitrary: at one point, single women weren’t permitted entry, and there became such a demand for impromptu weddings that a room was set aside as “the altar” where so many desperate unions began, for better or worse.

This sort of exclusionary regulation had its roots in racist “eugenics” theories popular in the early 1900’s that held that certain ethnicities were not as smart, upstanding or moral as others, and thus could not be counted on to contribute their fair share to the country. So-called Progressive lawmakers sought to exclude these undesirables through a host of subjective laws and restrictions, including mandatory literacy tests. Which brings us to Local historian Bob McNulty’s wonderful Philadelphia Story about Winnie Byrne, a young factory worker in Northern Liberties who’d come to the city from County Donegal, Ireland, with her older sister Susan.

The two arrived at Pier 53 on March 3, 1911, to room with an aunt and they both quickly found good-paying jobs. By December of that year, Winnie had saved enough to cover her beloved brother John’s fare over. She was there to greet him when his ship, the Haverford, arrived at Pier 53 on June 4, 1912 – she even spotted him waving his cap at her from the deck. But when he failed to emerge from the station with his shipmates, she rightfully feared the worst: her brother was being detained! John had failed his literacy test, and would be sent back to Ireland as soon as possible.

Of course she cried and begged for her brother, but what could be done? The rule was on the books. And her brother was fully and undeniably illiterate. Ah, but Winnie had a trick up her sleeve…

Technically, her brother had 55 days to be deported. So the young woman proposed to the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization that he allow her this time to teach her brother how to read and write. When his days are up, he’ll take the literacy test again, and if he passes then he can stay and if not then he’ll board the next passage back to Ireland. The Commissioner was skeptical but agreed to her plan.

Winnie took a leave of absence from her job and began tutoring John every morning in his holding cell at Pier 53, and together they’d work on elementary school primers until five in the evening. It was challenging for both of them, but somewhere around week five he “graduated” to more complex words and sentences from the Bible. On day 43, John read aloud the first chapter of Genesis. Then he successfully wrote out the text of a newspaper article as his sister recited it. Success!

They called for the inspector to come with his test cards immediately. The commissioner himself came down to confirm the results and congratulate her. “You win!” he told her, “Now take him home with you, and good luck to you both.”

A story in the Evening Public Ledger followed up on the siblings at their aunt’s house on New Market Street. They were celebrating John’s achievement, and also Winnie’s 22nd birthday. “Do you not think I have a nice present of my brother?” she beamed.

Winnie soon returned to her job at the factory, and John found work in construction. Both became naturalized citizens; John never married but Winnie eventually wed a young Irishman she’d met on the ship ride to America. They’d stayed in contact for years, and married in 1919. The couple settled in Rhawnhurst where they raised four children. Winnie was widowed in 1975; she was 96 when she passed in 1986, leaving behind two sons, two daughters, 18 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Today, immigrants to the US must navigate much different hurdles than Winnie and John. While applicants for US citizenship must demonstrate a basic ability to speak/read/write English, there’s no longer a formal literacy test for entry because language skills are not a requirement for enjoying civic rights in this country.

Still, coming to America is now a multi-step process that varies greatly depending on a person’s circumstances and country of origin. Regardless, about 15% of Philadelphia’s population came here from elsewhere; the majority arriving from China, Dominican Republic, India, Vietnam, Jamaica, Haiti, Mexico, Ukraine, Brazil, and Cambodia (in that order).

Immigrants are central to our city’s economic growth, and more importantly, they enliven our neighborhoods with new energy, art, culture, and lived experience. In 2023, Philadelphia was recognized as a “Certified Welcoming” city, which means we offer substantial programs, policies, and practices for immigrant inclusion and support. The designation highlights Philly as a lead advocate for community efforts and investments that incorporate all incoming cultures, safely and respectfully.

Here’s to immigrants in our city – past, present, and future! Comments welcome, please leave them below or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.   

Oscar Handlin (1915 – 2011) American historian & Pulitzer Prize winner

Read more about Winnie and her brother John in Bob McNulty’s original narrative that brings Old Philadelphia to life with names, addresses, personal quirks, and other wonderful details (originally published July, 2022 and printed in February’s LOCAL newspaper).

For more great history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. And check out Bob’s previous Local column HERE for a tragic tale of loss, murder, and survival from white rural poverty in 19th century America.

🕰️🔙 STEP BACK IN TIME 🛳️🛄

While the immigration station is long gone, the spot where it stood is now a popular public space on the Delaware Riverfront, about a mile south from Penn’s Landing. Opened in 2014, Washington Avenue Pier is a one-acre park with a commemorative marker and interpretive signage relating the site’s history as the country’s first Navy Yard and the point of entry for the ancestors of countless local families.

An interactive sculpture entitled “Land Buoy” invites visitors to climb its 16-foot spiral staircase for fantastic 360 degree views of the river, bridges, and city skyline. “I want people to climb the spiral into a crows nest and take the place of what it meant to sight land for the first time,” said the artist, Jody Pinto (herself the descendant of immigrants who came through Pier 53).

The park is also an ecological oasis, with an elevated boardwalk over wetland habitats, and a graded, landscaped path visitors can follow to the end of the pier, where they can literally touch the river.

PRO TIP: Grab an Indego bike and enjoy a day on the Delaware River Trail, which connects The Pier to other waterfront attractions including Spruce Street Harbor Park, the RiverRink Summerfest & Winterfest, and Cherry Street Pier, plus Dave & Busters and all the old-school clubs (it’s a short walk to the Swedes Church bike station at 815. S. Front Street).

Washington Avenue Pier
Columbus Blvd & Washington Ave
Open from dusk til dawn year-round, 7 days a week

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 20 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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