Sailing to the Land of Liberty
Most immigrants entered the United States through New York Harbor, although there were other ports of entry in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, and New Orleans. The great steamship companies like the White Star, Red Star, Cunard, and Hamburg-America Lines played a significant role in the history of Ellis Island and immigration as a whole.
First and second class passengers arriving in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers received a cursory inspection aboard the ship; theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket they were affluent and less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. However, regardless of class, sick passengers or those with legal problems were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection.
This scenario was far different for third class passengers, commonly referred to as “steerage.” These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. After the steamship docked in the Harbor (typically along the west coast of Manhattan), steerage passengers would board a ferry to Ellis Island for their detailed inspection.