Little Annie Moore was aged 14 and thought, with a little tear in her eye, about her upcoming 15th birthday on New Year’s Day. It would be the best birthday of her short life for with a little luck and fair weather she and her two brothers Phillip and Anthony would be reunited with their parents whom they had not seen for nearly four years. It was her father who had sent home sufficient money to pay for the three tickets for the fare that would take them by ship to join them in a new life in a New World.
She had been born on the 1st January 1877 in a small village just outside Cork City and had on many occasions watched the large ships sail out into the Atlantic taking emigrants who would never more see their native land. She was not old enough to have seen those ‘poor wretched wrecks of humanity’ as her grandmother called them, make their way from distant places to leave behind the Famine that was then ravishing most of Ireland. She had learned in School of the hundreds of thousands who had either died or emigrated during the five or six years of famine.
Her parents had left their three children in the careful hands of their grandmother when they had decided to emigrate themselves. They had sailed on a bright summer’s day in 1888 and little Annie could not wait to be reunited with them. It would not be long now……….
She had read the letter from her father and mother – a very long letter at that – over and over again. The instructions were very important for if she was not prepared for what might happen when she arrived at their destination, all sorts of problems might arise.
She and the two boys had repeated her parent’s address over and over again and made sure that they had fully remembered all the other instructions. The address was 32 Monroe Street, Manhattan, close to where her father worked in the Fish Market. He had said that the ship would most likely berth not far away at Castle Garden Immigration Depot but that the new reception centre at Ellis Island might be completed before their arrival.
Before leaving the ship, Annie was to carry a damp cloth in her bag. She did not understand the reasoning but her father said that if anyone wrote a letter in chalk on any of their coats she was to quietly wipe it off without being seen. They were to look happy and smile and no matter how tired they were from the journey, they were to walk upright and not slouch going up the stairs to the examination area. There were 19 questions to be answered and the children were each to have the answers written down in case of any problem. They were to answer them however, without reference to the notes if at all possible.
December the first eventually came leaving only ten days to go. Annie, and in particular Anthony were so excited that they did not sleep much over the following nights. Phillip did not seem to be excited at all for he had, even at the tender age of twelve made up his mind that as soon as he could afford the ticket, he would return to Cork and his grandmother whom he adored.
The packing was completed with days to spare and on the 10th December in heavy rain, grandmother and children made their way to the docks where the steamship Nevada waited. Without any fuss or ado, Granny Moore kissed them farewell and pushed them towards the gangway. Phillip ran back to her and gave her his promise of his return.
The trio made their way along the gangway and handed over their tickets. They were taken to a small cabin with three bunks. After settling in, they made their way to the deck where they were able to wave to their grandmother who stood in the rain among hundreds of other elderly people. Annie felt sad and elated at the same time. About three hours later a blast was heard from the ship’s hooter and the ship gently moved away from the dock. Annie looked and sure enough their grandmother still stood as if nailed to the spot where she had been for the full three hours. They waved but quickly the ship moved out into the channel and away from Cork.
Annie and Phillip would once again see Ireland but Anthony would not. He it was who would take to America like a ‘duck to water’ and quickly forget his Irish home.
They got into a routine on board ship with little or nothing to do. They walked the deck when the weather was fine but for most of the journey it was either misty or a fine drizzle. They ate well and slept a lot. Christmas on board was a special day with the festivities going on for three days.
On the 31st December at about 8pm they weighed anchor in the Hudson River and when they asked a crewmember they were told that they would disembark at about 9am the next morning. They had very little sleep that night.
Next morning as they had been told, the ship made its way to what looked like a brand new facility. As it turned out, it was Ellis Island Immigration Reception. It was open for business for the first time. It was also Annie’s fifteenth birthday.
When the ship docked they were lead down the gangway and into a large hall. A very officious man in uniform came up to the three children and asked, “How old are you three?” Annie answered pointing to Anthony and Phillip “They are ten and twelve and I am fifteen today”. “Fantastic” the man replied “just what we are looking for“. They were taken to the first floor and were in fact the first passengers to reach there. The man took the three forward to the immigration officer.
The immigration official began to ask questions, the prepared answers to which Annie rattled off. She did likewise for the two boys and they were granted permission to land. It was then that the original official gentleman stepped forward and said aloud to some nearby men who turned out to be reporters: “I would like to welcome to America, this young Irish lassie who is not only celebrating her fifteenth birthday today but is also the first person to enter America through this wonderful facility“. There was some clapping and he handed something to Annie. It was in fact a ten dollar gold coin…………….
As they made their way out to meet their parents, little Annie was not to realise that she was the first of about 12 million people to pass through the building before its closure on 12th November 1954.
Incidentally, the last person to pass through the facility before it closed was a Norwegian seaman named Arne Peterssen.
Oh yes, about the damp cloth she was told to have ready when she entered the Reception area: The Immigration officers used to watch the people as they left the ships and climbed the stairs towards the main area. If they noticed anything particular such as obvious signs of illness or insanity or such, they would chalk a code letter on the back of the coat of the person suspected. Many literally wiped the mark off before having their medical examination in the hope that it would not be noticed again and their entry to the United States refused.
Annie went on to marry a German immigrant named Augustus Schayer with whom she had at least eleven children. She died of heart failure in 1923 aged 46 years. Her grave was discovered in 2006……………………
The story of Annie Moore being the first person through Ellis Island is a fact. She was from Cork. Many of the other bits and pieces in the story are facts, but many are a figment of my imagination….