Philly’s Immigration Station at Pier 53

Engraving of landing place of European Steamers, and Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Philadelphia, c. 1887. Reproduced from Tariff of Immigrant Fares from Philadelphia Issued by the Immigrant Clearing House Committee, in Effect April 1st, 1887.

To me, Philadelphia’s Immigration Station at Pier 53 is a sacred spot. It’s where over one million immigrants entered our country, most of them fleeing religious persecution or devastating poverty.

But many current residents don’t even know the Immigration Station once existed at the foot of Washington Avenue and Columbus Boulevard.

Building the Immigration Station in Philadelphia was part of strategic plan by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) to compete with its rival, the New York Central Railroad, on a global basis.

The most powerful and influential business enterprise in the U.S. at that time, the PRR hoped to steer immigrants away from New York and transport them to the hinterlands on Philadelphia trains.

After joining joined forces with the International Navigation Company to build four transatlantic liners at Kensington’s William Cramp and Sons Shipbuilding Company, the railroad began advertising Philadelphia and its station as a shorter, more direct route to the U.S. – with a lower fare.

Ads in Eastern Europe proclaimed that Philadelphia was 100 miles nearer to the West than New York. And the marketing worked.

One publication, Hamagid (The Preacher), praised the port of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Railroad as “the best and most reliable for emigrants who are going to the American West.”

“Within a short few years,” said the National Archives at Philadelphia, “the railroad was able to increase its profits by 40%. This vertical integration helped the Pennsylvania Railroad become the largest railroad by traffic and revenue in the U.S. throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th Century.”

Interesting Oddities

  • Under the United States Immigration Act, single women could be prohibited from entering the country “unless expected by relatives who give bond for their support.” That probably was why part of the examination room at the station was called the “Altar.” And why author Frederick R. Miller says in “Philadelphia: Immigrant City” that “many hurried unions were celebrated on the spot.”
  • As an entry point, Philadelphia, then the largest freshwater port in the world, had several disadvantages. One, it was 200 miles further from Europe than New York. Two, since ships coming here traveled almost 110 miles from the ocean up the Delaware River, land was in sight the entire time. That could be very frustrating to travelers.
  • Even so, 19,807 immigrants entered the U.S. at Philadelphia in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1894. Of that number, 8,398 stayed in Pennsylvania. More than 4,200 were heading to New York, and 93 as far as California. Germany (4,227), Ireland (3,747), and Russia (3,385) represented the home countries of the largest arriving groups. Only 53 Italians entered here that year; most of them came into New York and traveled to Philadelphia by train.

Celebrate your immigrant ancestors and go to Pier 53. It’s just a short walk on a gravel path from Washington Avenue at Columbus Blvd. Head between the Coast Guard Station and the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 Training Center.

Sit down on the many wooden benches and enjoy the greenery and scenery. Be sure to go up the 16-foot spiral staircase of the “Land Buoy,” a sculpture offering you a birds-eye view of the river and the city.

Think about how your relatives felt as they first stepped on American soil.

And thank them for all they went through to get here. You owe them that much.


Name: Immigration Station, Pier 53

Opened: 1873

Demolished: 1915

Marker Location: Christopher Columbus Blvd. at Washington Ave., next to the US Coast Guard Station, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:  September 14, 1994

Claim to Fame: Over 1 million immigrants entered the U.S. here