The Subcarpathian Ruthenians

Exodus to a "Promised Land"

by Rev. Robert Hospodar, J.C.L.

This article first appeared in the GCU 1986 Yearbook

(Editor's note: In 1986 our nation will observe the centennial of the Statue of Liberty with many special events. Fraternalists throughout the United States are involved in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island restoration projects. In observance of the Statue of Liberty's centennial, we present the following in recognition of our ancestors and forebears journey to freedom, to their new "promised land. " We acknowledge the author. Rev. Robert Hospodar, the "Eastern Catholic Life, " and the Diocese of Passaic Heritage Library for the use of the text and photos.)

On the dreary afternoon of October 28, 1886, sculptor August Bartholdi ceremoniously unveiled his assembled 151-foot Statue of Liberty. Mounted atop a 150-foot concrete pedestal constructed on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor, the giant copper plate statue had been the centennial gift from France to the United States in 1876. In his dedication speech that day. President Grover Cleveland remarked on the international good-will and peace which the statue represented. Other speakers praised Franco-American relations and the principles of democracy.

While the festivities proceeded on Bedloe's Island, European immigrants were hurriedly disembarking from boats at the tip of Manhattan, eager to enter a country which they hoped would provide them with freedom and relief from the pains of poverty. Among the participants at the dedication ceremony only the poet Emma Lazarus had envisioned that the great statue might be raising its torch in welcome to the newcomers from foreign lands. The recitation of her poem, "The New Colossus" (written in 1883 to raise funds for the statue's pedestal), received only polite applause from the dignitaries and spectators present. The dramatic invitation proclaimed in one verse, however, has nonetheless become the poetic expression of the monument's symbolic meaning since it began its vigil in New York Harbor:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the nameless, tempest-lost, to me I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Between 1880 and 1921, over 23,500,000 people took advantage of the "Golden Door" to America made possible by its government's liberal immigration policy. These were the "new" immigrants and included among them were our ancestors in this country.

There were four principal points of entry for European immigrants to the United States: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and New York City. New York City received by far the most new arrivals. "Castle Garden" served as the processing center for New York arrivals between 1855 and 1892.

Ellis Island Immigration Station. Originally known as Gibbet Island, the island was renamed after its then-current owner Samuel Ellis in the late 18th century. Fortified during the Napoleonic Wars, the island served as the site of Fort Gibson for most of the 19th century. After the Civil War it served as an ammunition dump. Congress ordered that Castle Garden be abandoned in 1890 in order to establish a new immigration station on Ellis Island. The station opened unfinished on January I, ] 892. The wooden structure was destroyed by fire on June 14, 189 7 - one day after its construction had been finally completed. Unfortunately, immigration records from 1855 (Castle Garden) were destroyed in the fire. A new, brick structure was then decided upon by the Federal Government. During the station 's reconstruction the Department of Immigration used the barge office at Battery Point to process immigrants.

The new immigration station was opened in December of 1900 and consisted of the main processing center, food service, laundry, shower facilities and powerhouse. Across the ferry slip from the center were the hospital and various administrative and service buildings.

During the peak years of the "new immigration" (i.e. 1897-1914) the Ellis island center often received between 5,000 to 10,000 immigrants a day.

The Subcarpathian Ruthenians: "New Immigrants" In A "New Land"

Subcarpathian Ruthenians or Rusins (the terms are interchangeable) participated in the era of the "new" immigration from its very first years. As their name describes, this Eastern Slav people were settled along the southern slope region of the Carpathian Mountains then situated within the boundaries of the Austro Hungarian Empire. At its greatest extent, their homeland encompassed an area of approximately 7,500 square miles. Since November of 1945, these lands have been divided between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

Certain Hungarian records indicate that only 59 Subcarpathian Ruthenians emigrated to America in 1870. The number of these immigrants sharply increased after 1879.

Statistics assembled by the American historian Andrew Shipman indicate that in the anthracite or "hard coal" region of Pennsylvania alone during 1880 there were close to 1,000 Ruthenians; 20,000 in 1890; and 40,000 in 1900. According to American Immigration Commission estimates about 500,000 Ruthenian emigrants had arrived in America by 1897. A second compilation of statistics by Shipman in 1909 revealed the following numbers and distribution: Pennsylvania 190,000, New York 50,500, New Jersey 40,000, Ohio 35,000, Connecticut 10,000, Massachusetts 7,500, Illinois 8,000, Rhode Island 1,500, Missouri 6,500, Indiana 6,000, Colorado, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana 8,000, West Virginia, Virginia and other Southern States 5,000.

According to government statistics, the greatest number of Ruthenian immigrants arrived in the (United States between 1899 and 1914. The research of historian Walter Warzeski has shown that the peak year for the Austro-Hungarian immigrant was 1907, but for the Ruthenian immigrant (from both Austria-Hungary and Russia) it was 1914, when the total number reached 42,413. The coming of the First World War and the restrictive measures culminating in the National Origins Act of 1929 closed the "Golden Door" era of American immigration. The new "quota system" observed by the United States and the Great Depression combined between 1931 and 1936, for example, to curtail Ruthenian immigration to a mere 587 people.

The nineteenth century Ruthenian immigrants have been very frankly described by one historian as "refugees" from the poverty and socio-political discrimination which oppressed them in their native lands.

Our own priest-historian, the Reverend Stephen Gulovich (dec. 1957) described the particular plight of the Subcarpathian Ruthenians in the following manner:

This description of a people's sorry state at the beginning of this century actually restates an official report of the humanitarian bureaucrat Commissioner Edward Egan on the economic conditions of Ruthenians in Hungary, submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1900:

"These people are without land and without cattle, and their destiny lies in the hands of extortioners; they are deliberately induced to drinking and are demoralized to such a degree, that even their own clergy are unable to help them; they are subject to constant harassment and abuse by the administrative powers, and no one extends them a helping hand. Morally and economically, these people are swiftly deteriorating and, in the near future, will completely disappear."

Main Building—Ellis Island and Transfer Vessel. Eyewitness)it- accounts describe how a transfer vessel would draw alongside the "big ships" and receive "a couple of hundred or even a thousand people. " The immigrants were then carried across New York Harbor to Ellis Island. The transfer crafts were constantly busy during the peak years of immigration. Sometimes one or a few would make several trips to the steamship.

Once the boat tied up at the ferry slip on Ellis Island the immigrants disembarked and lined up for the walk to inspection. It frequently happened that immigrants waited aboard the transfer craft for several hours if the facility was especially crowded that day or the staff were at lunch.

The great outdoor canopy was the only protection against inclement weather and temperature if the immigrant was caught between transfer boat and the center's interior.

A variety of transfer craft were used over the years but all were flat-bottom on account of the shallow channels.

It is not surprising that the organized and often unscrupulous activity of agents for the steamship companies or for the aggressive American mining and steel industries (among others) could so successfully lure the indigent Subcarpathian Ruthenians away from Hungary towards a distant "Promised Land." Stories had it that this faraway country abounded in wealth, land and liberties so long denied by the suspicious and autocratic Magyar nobility and the collapse of the antiquated feudal economic system after 1848. Although they did indeed find employment, freedom, and improved wages, the Ruthenian immigrants soon experienced the distress which inevitably accompanied an arrival in a very different society and culture. One nineteenth century Pennsylvania journalist presented the dilemma of these future American citizens:

"Their native tongue is far removed from our own; their illiteracy is great (40%); their economic efficiency is lost; and their religious and moral training is not up to the American standard. Hence, the gap between these immigrants and our people is great, the process of assimilation is difficult, and the tasks of changing from the old to the new is fraught with danger."

The small number of Ruthenian immigrants that arrived in the United States during the early 1870's settled in the New England area and engaged in farming or in the nonskilled labor available in the port cities. After 1877, however, the settlement pattern changed significantly when Ruthenians traveled to the coal and steel regions of Pennsylvania. Between 1890and 1900 the number of Ruthenians employed in the anthracite or "hard coal" mines of Pennsylvania (including the Schuylkill Field, the Wyoming Field and Luzerne County) increased from 9,931 to 13,534.

Slav Immigrants Prepare For Inspection. Once ashore from the transfer craft, the immigrants were formed into groups according to the ship and manifest numbers. Each received a white landing or identification card which was usually pinned to clothing. The card number corresponded to the number in the ship's manifest. The "tags" are visible in the photo.

The non-skilled labor for which they were hired was not in itself unacceptable to the Ruthenian immigrants. Its wages were quite sufficient for their purposes. In Hungary, the Ruthenian would labor fourteen hours to earn twenty-five to thirty-five cents. The same wage could be earned in America for one hour's work (in 1911 a miner's daily wage, for example, was $ 1.98). Living austerely, the Ruthenian immigrant could establish a very modest home in America and perhaps even assist any family which still remained abroad. In fact, it was not at all unusual for a Ruthenian male to labor several years in the United States, acquire a savings, and return to his family and homeland. Once there, he could purchase adequate crop-growing land and commence a much more secure agrarian lifestyle. He, with perhaps his entire family, would again voyage to the United States should the need arise. Such enterprising personalities were named "birds of passage" by American immigration officials.

Unfortunately, the unsuspecting Ruthenians afforded a hitherto untapped and extremely useful source of manpower for the American industrialists. This large body of cheap labor provided these wealthy magnates, derided as "Robber Barons" during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, with a means to circumvent the increasing cost of native American workers and hopefully break the fledgling union system. Naturally this economic tactic did not go unnoticed by American labor and the Ruthenian immigrants became labeled as "strike breakers" and "scabs". In fact, history shows that, once made aware of their misuse by the mining and industrial interests, the Ruthenians became staunch supporters of a union system which would serve the workers' needs. Sadly, these and the other "new immigrants" employed by the industrialists were for a long time the target of injustice and abuse at the hands of Americans who either themselves or their immediate ancestors had experienced the hardships which accompanied emigration to the United States.

Once the decision and passage money to travel to America had been secured (some immigrants sold their land and possessions or borrowed money at fantastic interest rates), the Ruthenian immigrant began the overland trip to any one of several northern European seaports. German ports, such as Bremerhaven and Hamburg, were used by approximately two-thirds of the emigrants from Austria-Hungary. In the early years, this part of the journey was made by foot or horse-drawn wagon. Towards the end of the century, however, the European railway system featured trains, often subsidized by the steamship companies, which brought emigrants to the embarkation points.

Slav Immigrants Move Upstairs Towards The Great Hall. AU personal belongings were carried by the immigrants from the beginning until the end of the inspection. Government physicians would scrutinize their ability to handle the physical stress as the newcomers slowly mooed step-by-step upwards. Physical deformities, defective posture, weak hearts, as examples, were supposedly detected during the walk. Two doctors conducted the examination. Immigrants would be taken aside for a more thorough examination at their discretion. No more than two minutes could be spent with each immigrant during the peak years of the immigration.

Initially, the Hungarian government did not regard the emigration of the Subcarpathian Ruthenians too seriously. It quickly became apparent that a large commodity of cheap labor was being lost. In March 1877, a decree was issued by the Habsburg government requiring the Catholic clergy to preach against the mass emigration. Priests wereexpected to stress the hardships and sufferings which beset the Slavs in America. Border guards were ordered to interfere with, and even prevent, departure from the Empire. Once the futility of its efforts became apparent, the Hungarian government mitigated its emigration policy. The legislation in 1903 and 1909 declared the great departure "harmful" to the Hungarian economy but accepted the development as a "necessary evil" in order to alleviate the deplorable economic conditions of northeastern Hungary. In 1904, the Hungarian government even attempted to secure some profit from the emigration trade. An agreement with Cunard Steamship Lines of England allowed the company to begin sailing from the Hungarian port of Fiume to New York. The so-called Cunard Hungarian American Line would hold a monopoly on transporting the America-bound immigrants in return for its agreement to abide by all Hungarian emigration laws. The effort was futile since the government lacked the means to enforce the monopoly on the emigrants or rival German steamship lines. Bribery and flight by night succeeded where normal methods of passage might fail.

Once at port, the emigrants underwent a medical examination before boarding ship (the steamship companies were obliged to assume the return fare for anyone rejected at the American Immigration Stations). After 1891 the American immigration law strictly required that the steamship lines vaccinate, disinfect, and properly examine their immigrant passengers prior to sailing; that they reimburse the United States government for the housing of detained passengers at American ports; and that they continue to return unsuitable immigrants to their ports of embarkation without charge. Such health standards contributed to the rejection of almost 40,000 people at European docks in 1907.

Some shipping companies, such as the Hamburg-Amerika Line and Cunard Line, provided temporary accommodations for large number of emigrants which featured proper sanitation and food. The latter company even arranged for the construction of an "immigrant village" for the travelers with a railway station, churches, and a synagogue. A multilingual staff, proper health and lodging facilities, adequate meals, even Kosher food, were available.

When the immigrants passed the on-shore preliminaries, they were taken aboard ship and directed to that section(s) known as "steerage." Historian Alan M. Kraut describes the accommodations:

"Steerage referred to the one or more below-deck compartments of a ship located fore and aft where the ships steering equipment had been located in an earlier era. The steerage compartments of late-nineteenth century steamers were no more than cargo holds without portholes and only two ventilators per compartment, unpartitioned, and six to eight feet high, crammed with two or more tiers of narrow metal bunks. Travelers had to bring their own straw mattresses which were cast overboard on the last day of the voyage. Men and women were segregated, sometimes on separate decks but often by nothing more than some blankets draped over a line in the center of the compartment. Children were permitted to stay with their mothers. Some of the larger ships sailing the Atlantic crammed as many as 2,000 men, women and children into compartments unfit for any human habitation.

"The air was always fetid because of poor ventilation. Emigrants had to bring their own cups, plates, and utensils. They cooked their own meals in one of several galleys shared by all those in steerage."

"The ship companies provided herring because it was inexpensive, nourishing and helped to combat sea-sickness. Toilet facilities varied from vessel to vessel. Some earlier ships had as few as twenty-one toilets per thousand."

The "Prison."

Once through the medical examination the immigrants were moved to waiting benches in the Great Hall. From there they would proceed to a final inquiry. The pipe-railing arrangement annoyed the immigrants. No matter how efficient the processing system, the pipes were "prison bars. " Government inspectors would individually interview each newcomer. Name? Nation of origin? Marital status? Immigrants had been forewarned by family or friends that had gone before them to never admit that they already had a job in the country. Such arrangements violated the 1885 contract labor law passed by Congress. The penalty—rejection. The story is told how a German immigrant was once asked his name by an inspector. Not a difficult question but the impatient inspector had confused the man with his rapid speech. Flustered, the immigrant exclaimed: "Schoyn vergessen (i.e., I forget)!" The inspector then noted in his register: "Name: Sean Ferguson. " Names were Americanized from the earliest hours ashore. emigrants. Later vessels had one toilet for every forty-seven travelers." Slowly, as a new generation of steamships were launched, "steerage" class gave way to "third class" accommodations which were more sanitary and offered much better provisions for its passengers. Nevertheless, in 1903 the complaint could still be heard: "We climbed down to steerage by going down a narrow, steep stairway. It was dark and slippery. Once there I saw people lying on bunks that were stacked up one on top of the other. The people did not have enough room to sit up in bed. The smell inside was terrible." The trans-Atlantic journey could take from eight to twenty-one days depending upon the point of departure. A "steerage" ticket in 1910 cost the immigrant between ten and fifteen dollars. Undoubtedly, the desire to experience this famous land known as the United States surpassed any fears which could be aroused from tales of the ocean voyage. If "steerage" was all one could afford, so be it. it was only a temporary environment. A means to an end. In New York Harbor, the steamship docked on the west side of Manhattan Island. At this point the first-class and cabin-class passengers disembarked. Meanwhile, as the immigrants waited, ferries tied alongside the vessel. The new arrivals boarded these boats for the trip to Ellis Island. For some, the American immigration station could be an "island of hope." For others, an "island of tears." It was another necessary evil before passage through the "Golden Door" alight from Lady Liberty's torch. A Meal At The Station. Food at the Ellis Island dining hall was provided by concessionaires under government contract. Two kitchens were operative. One kitchen provided food for all the non-Jewish immigrants and the other prepared Kosher dishes. The steamship companies were required to pay the Federal government for any food consumed during the examinations or detentions. Food for the journey to the final destination was purchased by the immigrants at counters or provided by charitable social service organizations.

Author's Note: The proceeding photographs are prints from original private collections now in the possession of the New York Public Library.

The photo-studies of the immigrants and the station at Ellis Island were executed by Lewis W. Hine between 1905 and 1910. The prints used for this photographic essay (and others) are in the possession of the Diocese of Passaic Heritage Library. Rev. Robert Hospodar, a GCU member, is pastor of Holy Spirit Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahwah, NJ. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 14, 1978 by the Most Rev. Michael J. Dudick, Bishop of the Diocese of Passaic. Fr. Hospodar has done advanced studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, where he received a Licentiate degree in Canon Law. As the Diocesan Historian, he has authored a series of special articles in the "Eastern Catholic Life" commemorating noted personalities and significant events in the history of the Ruthenian Rite in the United States.

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