My cousin Jean wrote that Great Grandpa Charles “Chas” used to cry when asked about his early “dog” days in New York City.
Let’s go back in time…
It’s 1884 and you have just stepped off a ship into a small boat taking you to New York City at Castle Garden in Battery Park (Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty don’t exist yet).
The ship voyages from Sweden to Liverpool to New York were brutal- sleeping on a wooden plank with your trunk for about a week in the heaving waves.
The smell of vomit and sewage was constant. When you did have an appetite, you got a bit of dry bread, rotten meat or potatoes. Drinking water was sparse- one small cooler of it and you had to share the single porcelain cup with the other passengers who may have “the invisible pest” that was recently discovered.
At least you didn’t have to travel with the cattle, like others years before you, but some of the passengers who kept you up at night telling bawdy stories or singing you wanted to throw overboard. You weren’t taught that fighting was right but those horrible men attacking the ladies in steerage sent you over the edge. They deserved more than a punch in the face and kick in the teeth. You’re scraped up a bit and the guys threatened to get even with you. Dogs!
It’s going to be another 14 hours of “processing” before you are officially in the US. The “dogs” are leering at you but you mind your business and focus on your dream.
Luckily, you are a young man and can enter the US by yourself without a male sponsor. You can also own land and cannot wait for the day you can buy that rich farmland in Nebraska. “No government telling me how I have to pray, keeping me in the poor class or making me farm bad soil!”
You step inside the big round “castle”. Look at all these people! Thousands of them in this round room! It still smells but not as bad as the bottom of that ship. Crying babies! Shouting men at the money exchange! One poor guy thought that he was so clever sewing his 2 bills in his shirt. He began to cry when the bills seemed glued together until someone suggested putting them in cold water. Sorted.
Now it’s your turn. You should get about $100 equivalent-looking foward to a meal, a bath and a room! You present your Swedish money. $2?! Are you kidding?! You start yelling, demanding a better exchange. $3 or nothing. People are yelling behind you to get a move on you stubborn Swede!
Crooks! The rumors were true!
Swindlers! And now you have to pay the $2.50 immigration fee?
You had just enough money for that horrible trip in “steerage”. The cost was $12 ($300 in today’s money). You don’t speak English and you have only the equivalent of 50 cents to your name.
You are only 19.
You don’t know anyone here.
Winter is coming.
Are you freaking out now?
What are you going to do?
Now you can’t afford a hotel or a meal or a bath.
You’ve signed up with the Labor Commission inside, hoping to get a job-anything soon.
People are greeting their American families, hugging.
You have no one.
Outside, you go to collect your steamer trunk.
An American runner yells “Work! Hotel! Meals!” In perfect Swedish.
Astonished, you turn your head for a second.
A fast young man steals your steamer trunk. You follow, chasing him to a run-down hotel. A gang is holding it hostage, calling you “stinky fish leather-pants Swede!” in perfect Swedish. You can’t buy your trunk back. They throw you against a wall for not having any money. Why have my former countrymen become these wretches and thieves? Are they so desperate?
All your stuff is gone.
You have nothing.
You feel like nothing.
Maybe you made the biggest mistake of your life and now you’re stuck.
You begin to head back to the castle for help.
A woman’s baby just got taken by another runner! The whole family is being led to a trap!
What in the hell is this place?!
You make it back to the castle.
The immigration people at Castle Garden ask if you have a sponsor or place to stay or rail tickets West.
You don’t and your trunk was just stolen.
You are put in the group of the sick, insane and very poor and told to wait. “OMG how did I get to be with this lot?!” you think.
A few more hours later, starving, beat up, exhausted and penniless, you would kill for a bath and some stew.
America reeks of desperation! Right now it smells worse than you.
A small boat arrives and you have to sit next to the guy who won’t stop muttering and screaming. He smells like the bottom of the ship. Scalywag steerage. You’re off to Wards island.
The rumors are true-Ward and Blackwell’s island are for criminals, the infirm, the insane, the dead, and the poor.
A new kind of hell.
You are allowed to stay for up to 5 years there until you earn enough $ for a train ride west.
You are sent to “new men’s barracks” and the screaming man and sick people are sent to the hospital asylum. At the barracks, you’re given a bedroll and a simple change of clothes-like prison. This is your new home for the next few months through winter until you can earn wages to live in Brooklyn. They just built the bridge last year so people can work in New York and live more cheaply in Brooklyn by paying a penny each way to cross it.
The next few weeks are ok-having a clean bed, working in the gardens in early fall. Word finally comes from the Labor Commission that they need you as a laborer in New York installing gas pipes for lamps in the streets before the ground freezes-maybe 2 months of work.
Hopefully, you can earn $23/month. It’s not enough to stay in the city because rooms with meals are $24/month. Brooklyn tenement housing is cheaper at $3/month.
At least now with the new labor laws, you only have to work 10 hour days. On paper anyway.
You’re excited to start earning a living so that you can go West. First day at work and it’s a little bit chilly. You are put in an all-Swedish “work gang”. There are those dog men again.
Luckily everyone is given a shovel and starts digging.
You’ll be paid in American cash at the end of the week on Saturday night. Every day the pie wagon comes with hot sandwiches and sausages to eat. You fill up on 3 of them for 30cents/day from some money earned at Ward’s. Going forward, that will still leave you with $4.20 at the end of each week. $16.80/month. The days are still warm and the dogs seem too tired to pester you.
Saturday night! Payday! $6! You start walking towards Brooklyn. You have the address of a tenement place that’s cleaner than others because a widow lives there. Across the bridge-yes, seems ok. It’s getting dark and suddenly you feel like you’re being followed. The dogs. They beat the daylights out of you and take your money.
Hours pass. You wake up chilled and bloody, lost in Brooklyn-a pig licks your face and then squeals off. It smells like sewage in the street. You don’t even have a penny to cross the bridge back to the castle in New York to the boat to the barracks.
Sunday morning and one person takes pity on you giving you a penny. “Rough nayht mayte?”
It takes hours to get back to the barracks, days to heal and now, no jobs are available for winter. The days are cold and long. You practice some English with the staff. “Hello dere”. It’s a weird language.
In Spring you try again and there always seem to be projects that need digging. You have a better work group this time and fashioned a knife over winter to protect yourself. You’ve made some work friends who agree that it’s safer to walk about in groups. The gangs are real and vicious. Only last week a guy got his eye gouged out and another stabbed in the leg with the axe blade boots. You succumbed to the $5month protection money from the gangs.
The tenements are not as nice as the barracks but it gives you more time to rest and buy a supper from one of the families.
No taxes yet, thank God
$7.20 in lunches
$3 rent for the attic
$1 for suppers
You need about $100 to get out of here.
8 months in 1885 save $54.40
5 months in 1886 save $34
Less the cost of winters without work.
$1rent(you do odd jobs around the place in trade)
$2 lunch suppers
$8×2 winters $16
It’s 2.5 cents/mile by rail.
After 2 years of saving, you hear of land and good wages in Colorado. 1780 miles $45 plus meals and getting settled.
And so you go.
Leaving behind the gangs, the streets filled with sewage, trash and pigs.
It’s August 1886 and Colorado is beautiful and it’s harvest time in the Rockies.
Later, Great Grandpa Chas went to Iowa where the farming season may have been a bit longer or wages better. Eventually, he bought land in Friend, Nebraska and married Emma in 1890. They had 6 kids including my Grandma. Mom told me stories about how Chas would trip her with his cane-a mean streak he picked up in New York I suspect.
In Edwardian times, people did not talk about their problems.
Grampa Chas, I write on behalf of you so that your story, as I imagine it, can be told. May you never cry again.