The Baltic arrived in New York Harbor on May 10, 1913, eight days after leaving Queenstown. Willie Diggin, his friend John Stack and the other third-class passengers from Ireland were transferred to barges and shuttled to the immigrant processing station at Ellis Island.
An immigrant ship in New York Harbor, circa 1900-1920, with Statue of Liberty at left and Ellis Island at right. Library of Congress
There, the first stop was a medical examination to determine whether the immigrants had any physical ailments or mental illness. Those who passed were funneled into the registry room, a massive hall with a 56-foot-high vaulted ceiling and giant American flags hanging from the walls. Some 16,000 people were turned away in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1913. Another 838,000 were allowed to enter America.
Willie and John packed into another barge for the trip back to Manhattan. On their way to the sprawling Pennsylvania Station they caught sight of the nearly 800-foot-tall Woolworth Building, which opened three weeks earlier as the world’s tallest office tower. Architect Cass Gilbert told the newspapers:
The building and the success of its owner shows that this is the land of equal opportunities, that a man may start with nothing and accomplish everything. It is not true that strife and unrest is the way to achieve, but that man prospers by the good old virtues – thrift, industry and honesty.
The Pennsylvania Railroad offered around-the-clock departures to Pittsburgh for about $8. The journey took 11 hours, allowing Willie and John to reach their destination the following day.
The weather the Sunday of their arrival was fair and warm. It was Whitsunday, or Pentecost, the Christian feast of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles as tongues of fire. It also marked the celebration of a new secular holiday: Mother’s Day.
Pittsburgh was a center of America’s growing industrial might. Nearly 558,000 people lived in the smoke-choked city, almost four times the population of County Kerry. The city’s skyline was modest compared to New York, its tallest buildings towering only about 300 feet above the crowded streets. But the scene was dramatically different than Ballybunion.
Above, the “point” at Pittsburgh, circa 1910-1920. Below, the city skyline during the same period. Library of Congress.
Willie settled in the city’s 15th Ward about six miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, a growing immigrant enclave on the north bank of the Monongahela River known by the names of its adjoining neighborhoods, Glenwood and Hazelwood. Willie boarded with his cousin, William Driscoll, at 65 Almeda Street. John Stack moved in with his brother, Bartholomew, a block away at 54 Almeda Street.
In addition to his sister, uncle and cousins, Willie kept connected to other Kerry immigrants through informal Irish county associations, which reunited people from each of Ireland’s 32 counties. He also joined the Hazelwood division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal organization established in America in 1836 to protect immigrants from anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry and violence.
Exposition Hall, probably a few years before Willie’s arrival in 1913. Library of Congress.
Two weeks before Willie’s arrival the AOH initiated 1,100 new members inside Pittsburgh’s Exposition Hall. Another 2,000 enrolled at the same location on June 8, 1913, “an incentive to all other cities throughout the country,” suggested one of the many Irish-American newspapers of the period.
Willie had made the crossing. He connected with family and other Irish immigrants. His new life in America was just getting started.
Tomorrow: STREETCAR MOTORMAN and CITIZEN