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Gloucester City: Philadelphia's Historic Immigrant Port of Entry

Hidden New Jersey:Sunday, July 28, 2013

 

Ask just about anyone where America's "Golden Door" of immigration stood in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they'll bring up Ellis Island. Most Americans, however, don't realize that there were several other, smaller immigration facilities at ports and border crossings around the country. Among them was the port of Philadelphia station at Gloucester City, New Jersey.
 
Gloucester City Immigration Station Hidden NJ
The former Gloucester City Immigration Station
is now home to a port-related business.

Standing rather plainly at the city's port, the three-story, white block building lacks the grandeur of its cousin near the Statue of Liberty. In fact, if you didn't know its history, you'd have no idea that it was anything more than a very sturdily-built office building. When I visited to get a lay of the land, I had to do a quick check on the smartphone to compare an old historic photo against the building before me. No plaques or notations give the casual passer-by any indication that within this structure, new arrivals were welcomed into the United States while others were detained before their inevitable deportation.

How did the Philadelphia immigration station end up in New Jersey? It seems to be the confluence of two classic issues: insufficient funding and a well-connected property owner. Immigration officials had long inspected ship passengers at a waterfront facility owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, expanding the building as the number of incoming vessels and immigrants grew. The city constructed a municipal inspection station at another pier as other shipping lines increased their immigrant transports.

Buckle_upAround the same time, federal officials were looking for ways to relieve overcrowding at Ellis Island, which was regularly seeing thousands more immigrants a day than it was designed to handle. By opening larger facilities at Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, officials hoped to shunt some of the traffic away from New York. Only problem was, the $250,000 that Congress allocated to open a new facility at Philadelphia was insufficient to buy any of the valuable port property on that side of the Delaware.

In a stroke of dubious luck, an ideal spot was located just on the other side of the river, in (you guessed it) Gloucester City. Politically-connected, headline-grabbing entrepreneur William Thompson just happened to own five acres of riverfront property he was willing to sell to the government for $100,000. The self-styled "Duke of Gloucester" was even willing to throw in his own home, an extravagant Victorian mansion which was repurposed as an administration building. The federal government erected the white building to handle the day-to-day tasks of processing new arrivals: inspection, detention, hearings and deportation.

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