Mayo Alive- June '98

From Cobh to Ellis Island

Continuing the Saga of John Kennedy from Mayo Abbey

His sea journey from Cobh to Ellis Island

Kennedy left Ireland at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 8, 1900. He had $30 and a train ticket to make his way from Queenstown-to-St. Louis. By the 1890s lively rate wars between steamship lines had halved the steerage fare from about $20-to-$10. In an enclosure on Queenstown, Kennedy was bathed, de-loused, and fed. His baggage and clothes were fumigated. Then he was ferried out to the big ship in the harbor.

The S.S. Campania was part of the Cunard Shipping Line, and originated in Liverpool the day before, with 577 passengers all ready on board. Many of the travelers were from England, Scotland and Wales, but others were from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, and Russia.

The Cunard Shipping Line opened offices on West Beach Street in 1859, across the street from Wilson's chemist shop, and was one of the busiest shipping agencies in Queenstown. By the turn of the century, most of the Cunard ships were 676 feet long and weighed 20,000 tons.

The Cunard Line had special jetties along West Beach where outgoing passengers took tenders to the ships waiting near the harbor entrance. After the 317 Irish immigrants reached the S.S. Campania, people hurried on board. Luggage, trunks and cargo lay about in everybody's way. Captain Henry Walker and the crew ignored all inquiries from people who constantly bumped into one another; and the din merged into the hissing steam, which, escaping through some iron plates, wrapped the whole scene in a white mist, while the bell in the bows went on clanging incessantly.

For the trip to New York City, the ship's physician, Dr. Francis Verdon, was available for emergencies. Dr. Verdon earned his degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and practiced medicine for 12 years before joining the crew of the S.S. Campania.

At last the boat moved off; and the two banks, lined with English military barracks, the English naval depot, and the English powder magazine on Rocky Island, slipped past like two wide ribbons being unwound as the S.S. Campania passed by St. Colman's Gothic Cathedral along the seaport, navigated past the two English forts on Roche's Point and entered the St. George Channel for the voyage to America. Many of the first-class passengers read the latest penny edition of the Cork Examiner, the daily newspaper for the Cork Harbor.

Ships leaving for Boston and New York routinely passed by the rows of Victorian houses winding up the steep slopes to the magnificent, unfinished French-Gothic Cathedral dedicated to St. Colman. The Catholic Cathedral took half a century to construct: the foundation stone was laid in 1868 and the completed building was consecrated in 1919. The tower of the building is 287 feet high and contains a fine carillon of bells. This view crowned the lower hill over the port, as emigrant ships navigated past Roche's Point and entered the St. George Channel for the voyage west across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Soon the S.S. Campania was launched upon the deep; for a week it seemed lost in its unshored harborless immensities. The deplorable conditions of the "coffin ships" had changed dramatically by the end of the 19th century, and a voyage that once took three or four weeks, now only required one week on much faster ships. Immigrants bound for America had to possess three things: an exit paper, enough funds to prevent they're becoming a public charge, and the price of passage.

In the floating commune of the big ship, status symbols were few but well defined. A suitcase, however battered, was most likely the mark of a city man. To a poor peasant, a wicker basket was elegance enough. Most people tied everything up in a blanket or a sheet. They brought with them what they thought to be vital to a decent life afloat. First, the need of a pillow, goose-feather, if they were lucky - a point of pride, a relic, and a symbol that some families kept throughout their lives. The religious usually took with them tokens of their faith, the Bible or a cross; a member of a close-knit family would cherish a heirloom yielded up in the moment of parting. It could be nothing more pretentious than a brass candlestick or a lock of hair.

For nearly seven days, the immigrants on board the S.S. Campania played cards, sang to harmonicas or tin whistles, counted their savings, continually checked their exit papers, complained about the atrocious food and the ubiquity of rats. The ones who could actually read, probably less than half the flock, recited the cheering promise of the immigrant agents' broadsides and pamphlets. The young women nursed the elders and the chronically seasick and resisted, or succumbed to, the advances of spry bachelors. There was no chance of privacy in the swarm of steerage. Once each day, the third-class passengers left their quarters for a walk on deck.

A week later, far down in the lower bay of New York City, Kennedy and his group crowded to the rail of the S.S. Campania to glimpse their first sight of America in the clean spring air. The day was Saturday, April 14. Ships at anchor choked the harbor. Amid the trunks and suitcases, the Kennedy group stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the Statue of Liberty. Their bodies leaned forward, and their hands gripped the railing of the ship as they waited to land.

In the early 1900s there could be as many as 15,000 immigrants arriving in one day, and the ships had to drop anchor

outside the Narrows, where Quarantine officers would come aboard to check for signs of epidemic diseases. If a ship was free of disease, doctors would then examine the first and second class passengers, most of whom were given permission to land as soon as the ship docked. Third-class passengers were ferried to Ellis Island for inspection.

Sometimes new arrivals had to wait aboard their ships for days before being transferred to Ellis Island. Once there, they were often confined to the overcrowded barges for hours without food or water, waiting for their turn to disembark for inspection.

Yet there, on the horizon, stood Manhattan. Closer, it grew into a cluster of pinnacles known as skyscrapers. And then the midtown skyscrapers topped the ones first seen. To most Europeans, New York was unlike any other city in the world.

Until 1892, European immigrants were cleared for entry at Castle Garden, once a fort, then a theater and a public amusement place down at the Battery. However, the volume of immigrants grew so great, and so many of them managed to disappear into Manhattan before being "processed," that a larger and more isolated sorting point was necessary. So, from 1892 on, once immigrants were tagged with numbers they were shipped aboard a ferry or a barge to Ellis Island.

The early Dutch settlers used Ellis Island as a picnic ground. Much later landfill increased its three acres into 27 acres.

Kennedy had contact with his first Americans in the persons of the immigrant inspectors of Ellis Island, two men and a woman in uniform clambering up a ladder from a cutter that had nosed alongside.



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