American Railways and the Cultural Landscape of Immigration
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American Railways and the Cultural Landscape of Immigration

From the moment of landing on American shores, an immigrant’s journey was far from over. Those who arrived in New York Harbor at the turn of the twentieth century met the awe-inspiring sight of the Statue of Liberty, followed quickly by the stress of inspection procedures at Ellis Island.1 In San Francisco the dreadful conditions at the Angel Island Immigration Station were infamous to Asian immigrants, who feared the exhaustive interrogation sessions and extended detention periods.2 While immigration histories frequently focus on social experiences of immigrants, the physical spaces through which they traveled were also part and parcel of the immigrant experience, and yet this aspect is largely overlooked.3 A difficult railway journey often bridged an immigrant’s passage from the port of entry on the East Coast to his or her intended home farther west. In train cars and railway stations, foreigners newly arrived from Italy, Poland, or Russia were segregated from native-born American passengers by virtue of their lower class and national origin. Racial segregation pervaded the space of the railways as well, not only for African American travelers in the southern and eastern states but also for Asian immigrants and Native Americans in the West.4 Railway officials carefully monitored the movement of immigrants through the railway system, intent on limiting their contact with other more privileged passengers. In this way the spaces of the railroad mimicked and replicated the conflicts in American society. First- and second-generation Americans, some of whom had immigrated only decades earlier, targeted newcomers, whom they perceived as different from themselves by virtue of language, skin color, custom, religion, political inclination, and behavior and because they carried with them the supposed physical dangers of disease and disorder.

Immigration legislation, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to bar immigrants, to the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which imposed national origins quotas, revealed the xenophobia and racism prevalent in American society. Eugenics was a guiding force behind much of this legislation, particularly the Johnson-Reed Act. The Dillingham Commission’s Report on Immigration, A Dictionary of Races or Peoples, which was published in 1911, reinforced the use of eugenics to control immigration by creating a hierarchical scale that equated physical attributes (skin color, facial features, etc.) with moral and intellectual qualities.5 At immigration stations officials used the Bertillon system of identification, an anthropometric system of physical measurements of body parts that was first employed in criminology.6 Cultural historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has demonstrated how, by the mid-nineteenth century, Americans used race as a social construct to establish hierarchies of power and privilege for European immigrants.7 By the late nineteenth century, for European Americans whose families had already been citizens for a generation or more, foreigners were perceived as a threat to the public, moral, and economic health of the nation.

The railways used specific places—the pier, the track, the car, and the main station (also known as the head house)—to regulate the movement [End Page 36] of immigrants and segregate one group from another during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this period, the most lucrative years of the railway age, rates of immigration soared (Figure 1).8 Most of these newly arrived foreigners had crossed the ocean as steerage passengers and had endured cramped and poorly equipped steamship quarters for at least a week. Upon their arrival on the East Coast, immigrants started their railroad travel by lining up on separate piers, where retrofitted boxcars awaited to carry them from crowded cities to the country’s heartland. The physical isolation on the railways would have been familiar to the immigrants in that it resembled the spatial order of the steamship, in which travelers were sorted by social class; they had merely exchanged one harsh, segregated space for another.

On the railways, however, conditions improved along the journey because railroad companies sought settlers for their vast landholdings in the western United States. To lure these potential landholders west, railroad companies operating west of Chicago offered sleeper cars to immigrants, not the converted boxcars of...