In the early 1600s, Europeans began arriving in the Philadelphia area, inhabited at the time by members of the Lenape tribe. Over the next four hundred years, immigrants, affected by various social, political, geographic, and economic factors, would continue to leave their countries of origin and settle in Philadelphia. While the population of the United States grew throughout this time period, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an especially large boom in the growth of cities. As the American population shifted from predominantly rural to predominantly urban, immigrants also began settling in cities in large numbers.
Despite its location over a hundred miles from the ocean, Philadelphia served as the port of entry for 1.3 million immigrants from 1815 to 1985. In 1873, two steamship lines, the American Line and the Red Star line, began regular steamship service between Europe and Philadelphia. Other companies also began offering service to Philadelphia including the Hamburg-American Line, which operated runs between Hamburg, Germany and Philadelphia beginning in 1898. From 1873 until the enacting of stricter immigration quotas in 1924, over one million immigrants arrived in Philadelphia. These immigrants received health inspections at various locations on the Delaware River before disembarking at the immigration stations in Philadelphia and passing through customs.
The Washington Avenue Immigration Station, the first of these stations, was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1870s on a pier located where Washington Avenue approaches the Delaware River. After completing all their paperwork at the station, some immigrants found employment and housing in Philadelphia while others traveled on to different locations. Since the station was owned by the railroad, train tickets were readily available for purchase, and many immigrants chose to board trains for destinations throughout the United States. The Washington Avenue Station was demolished in 1915.
As in cities across the country, the increase in immigration to Philadelphia brought new cultural customs and traditions as well as ethnic and economic tensions that influenced the development of the city and continue to have an effect on American history and policy today.
Miller, Fredric M. “Immigration through the Port of Philadelphia.” In Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, edited by M. Mark Stolarik, 37-54. Philadelphia: Balch Institute Press, 1988.
Miller, Fredric M. “Philadelphia: Immigrant City.” Balch Online Resources.
Sitarski, Stephen M. “From Weccacoe to South Philadelphia: The Changing Face of a Neighborhood.” Pennsylvania Legacies 7, no. 2 (November 2007).