The influx of immigrants to American shores between 1831-1930 can be arranged into 3 great waves with peaks occurring in the 1850’s, the 1880’s, and the decade before World War I. (Jones 1976) High school students at the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in New Jersey have posted a chart illustrating these peaks and waves of immigration. Nearly 5 million persons emigrated to the U.S. during the first wave, while more than 32 ½ million came in the waves that followed.
The port of Baltimore figured prominently in the latter 2 waves, 1861 to 1930. Most of the 2 million immigrants who came to Baltimore between 1820-1989 came during this 70 year period.(McWilliams 1989) Why Baltimore?
One might reasonably expect to find that, as in the first wave, natural disaster and hardship, akin to that evidenced in the Irish potato famine, played a major role. While this is certainly true–Jews fled Poland and Russia between 1880-1921 due to 3 series of pogroms, each worse than the last (Kraut 1982)–economic factors are also said to have played a large role. (Esslinger 1988) For example, strong economic ties existed between Baltimore and the German port of Bremen due to Baltimore’s exports of tobacco, cotton, and grain. In 1868, John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), executed an agreement with the North German Lloyd steamship line to provide regular service to Baltimore.
Exports from Baltimore would go to Bremen, and immigrants would come to Baltimore on the return voyage disembarking at the B&O’s newly built immigrant pier. Two-thirds of the immigrants arriving in this fashion purchased a single ticket which saw them across the ocean and to cities of the western U.S. (Olson 1980) The pier was constructed so that, in many cases, immigrants proceeded directly from the pier to waiting trains. Baltimore became second only to New York in the number of immigrants received, and this service lasted until World War I. (Owens 1941, 295)
Arranging immigration figures neatly into waves tells us little of the immigrant experience. The human masses so blithely considered as waves were, after all, composed of individuals. It has been said that so many emigrated from their homelands during the period 1861-1930 because it was easy. After the 1920’s, U.S. immigration law became increasingly restrictive, effectively reducing the flow of immigrants to a trickle (Jones 1976). The U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service has a site which lists major immigration legislation. Historians cite advances such as the telegraph, the railroad, and the steamship in accounting for the new ease of travel. The steamship was instrumental in shortening the length of the average voyage from a total of six weeks to a total of 14 days, (Jones 1976) but the reader will have to decide if the scenario that follows sounds easy.