It was New Years Eve, December 31, 1891 and New York was celebrating.
Thousands were in the bars and taverns drinking too many whiskeys or hot toddies, egg nog or cheap wine according to their tastes and pocketbooks. Seemed like every New Yorker, young and old, man or woman, native and newcomer was out in the streets or bars. Even the desperately poor celebrated the coming of the new year.
Before the New Years festivities moved to Times Square, New Yorkers rang in the new year in front of Trinity Church, on Broadway at the foot of Wall Street and at City Hall, a short distance away. At midnight the crowds would leave the watering holes to hear the giant bells of Trinity ring out the twelfth hour. Housewives would come out of their tenements with metal pots and spoons and make a racket, joining with neighbors in hopes for a better year.
A band in front of City Hall would strike up “Hail Columbia,” considered the national song. It wasn’t until 1931 that Congress would designate The Star Spangled Banner as the anthem.
In the harbor of Manhattan that night was a ship; one of several. It was the steamship Nevada. It was the kind of ship that those who could afford better didn’t book for travel. It was low, slow, some 340 feet or so in length but only 43 feet wide. It had one short funnel, an engine that had seen better days and two masts with folded sails in case the engine quit.
It took some 12 days to cross the Atlantic while newer steam ships now made the crossing in 6. It carried 127 passengers in steerage on that trip; mostly impoverished Russian Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms and a smattering of Irish immigrants who had left Queenstown, County Cork Ireland for a new life in America.
The Nevada had arrived late in the afternoon and immigration facilities were closed for New Years Eve; the immigrants would have to spend another night on board in their dank compartments.
On the ship that night were three unaccompanied children coming to join their parents, Mathew and Julia and older brother and sister in the city of dreams. Annie Moore was just 17 and probably spent the night in her bunk in her steerage compartment that New Years Eve. . Somewhere close by were Annie’s younger brothers; 15 year old Anthony and 12 year old Philip.
The rest of the family had come to New York several years earlier and was living at 32 Monroe Street, a few blocks north of the Brooklyn Bridge and close to the waterfront. For immigrants joining parents, spouses and other loved ones, this was the last night of waiting after years of separation. Surrounded by the din coming from Manhattan and the anticipation of seeing mom and dad, we can assume the Moore kids got very little sleep.
Another person who probably got very little sleep that night was Colonel John B. Weber, a 49 year old native of Buffalo, New York. He had been the youngest Colonel in both armies during the Civil War and had taken an assignment no one wanted at the time – leading black trroops who had been former Louisiana slaves. He had survived some of the bloodiest fighting of the war and afterwards served two terms in Congress before being appointed the first federal superintendent of immigration for the Port of New York.
For two centuries after New York had been founded immigrants underwent no inspection process whatsoever; they simply stepped off the boat and began their new lives. They did not need passports or documents to gain entry. After the American Revolution doctors began boarding vessels to inspect passengers for small pox, yellow fever, typhus and cholera. The sick would be quarantined on Staten Island.
In 1875 the first restrictions in American history banned the landing of convicts, prostitutes and Chinese laborers. Seven years later, “idiots”, the insane and those likely to become a “public charge,” those with “loathsome or contagious disease” and all Chinese were banned.
These restrictions required enforcement and the only way to do it was to construct an immigration station – a place where all immigrants to New York would land and be processed.
Colonel Weber supervised the building of Ellis Island.
And on New Years Day, January 1, 1892 it would open for business. Colonel Weber would have a busy and momentous day. On New Years Day Colonel Weber boarded a small ferry at the southern end of Manhattan and under cloudy skies arrived at Ellis Island at 8 a.m. At 10:30 he ordered the transport of the first boat load of immigrants.
An hour so earlier a ferry festooned in red, white and blue had come along side the S/S Nevada. Annie, her brothers and the steerage class immigrants clamored aboard while sailors brought their trunks, bags and bundles on board. First and Second Class passengers were processed by immigration officials on the Nevada and were not required to join the steerage passengers on the ferry. They disembarked at their leisure later when the Nevada docked at Houston Street.
Arriving at Ellis Island it is not clear how our Annie got to the head of the line. The Times reported that an Italian gave her his place when he saw her in tears, overcome by emotions of finally joining her parents. A burley guy had his foot on the gangplank when a sailor, one Mike Tierney pulled him back shouting “Ladies first!”
Confusion at the top of the gangplank would indicate that Colonel Weber did not dictate who should be first. Little Annie walked down the ramp first and was immediately greeted by Weber and other dignataries. She was taken to a tall lectern with her brothers inside the building and an official recorded her name, age, occupation, last place of residence and intended destination.
Colonel Weber then made a short speech welcoming her to the United States and handed her a glistening ten dollar gold coin. Father Callahan of Our Lady of the Rosary, which provided assistance to young female Catholic immigrants gave her a silver coin and a bystander gave her a five dollar gold coin.
In less than half an hour Annie found her parents and was on her way to the city to spend the rest of New Years Day.
Anne Moore was quickly forgotten. Interest in the “first immigrant” began in 1990 with the restoration of Ellis Island as a national monument and there was confusion over the real Annie Moore. Her descendants were finally identified in 2006.
Annie never left New York. She spent much of her younger years in Manhattans 4th Ward, the most run-down waterfront district on the East River, swarming with brothels, sailor’s boarding houses, rowdy saloons and squalid tenements.
She met and married a German, Augustus Schayer in 1895 when she was 19. She had 11 children over the next 20 years of which only 5 survived to adulthood. Child mortality accompanied a life of poverty in dilapidated tenements with poor ventilation and terrible sanitation.
Annie’s little brother Anthony died at 21 in the Bronx and was buried in potter’s field. Mathew in 1907 at age 55 while living in the House of Relief for the Indigent. The family relied on the city almshouse for medical care.
Yet they were not the poorest of the poor. Annie managed to purchase a burial plot in Calvary Cemetery in Queens to bury the children, albeit without headstones.
Annie died at age 49 from heart failure in 1924. She never lived to see the success of her grand children in America nor the statues of her on Ellis Island or at the dock in Queenstown.
Over the next 62 years after Annie’s landing some fifteen million immigrants followed Annie’s footsteps through Ellis Island. My grandparents, 2 uncles and an aunt followed her.
My paternal grandparents are buried in Calvary just a short walk from Annie’s grave.
They are all a long way from home.
Our family made a contribution to the restoration of Ellis Island, There us a bronze plaque facing Manhattan with their names engraved upon it.