Sacred Spaces – Part 2

It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present, over a mutual concern for the future.

William J. Murtagh, First Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

It has been 100+ years since the first immigrants stepped onto House Island to be processed at the House Island Immigration and Quarantine Station

The original correspondence between the U.S government officials, local businesses, politicians, architects, contractors are retained between planks of cedar, tied with a red ribbon and wedged into a box at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. I untie the ribbon and carefully unfold the documents – some written in the calligraphy of the time. Later letters were typed on onion skin paper.

Although the local Portland businessmen and politicians at the time supported the government request to build the Quarantine and Immigration Station, they petitioned that the building not be on any of the populated islands of Casco Bay so as not to impact the budding tourism industry.

Archive 3 Archive1 Archive2

Many of the immigrants that passed through House Island were bound for New York and Boston. They came for a better life – to escape oppression or persecution, to find religious freedom, to seek economic prosperity. They came hoping for a new life in a new land.

They left family and friends and a familiar way of life.

They traveled in steerage for up to 18 days.

They arrived not knowing where they would sleep that night or where they would obtain a meal.

Those that ‘passed inspection’ by the Inspectors and Doctors on House Island were taken to Portland, placed on trains at the Grand Trunk Station and sent on to their intended destination.

300px-Grand_Trunk_Railroad_Station,_Portland,_ME

Those detained wondered if they would eventually be allowed to stay or be returned.

The 1924 Quota Act that would restrict the number of Eastern Europeans coming into the U.S. loomed. Steamship companies, predicting the future loss of business, increased the number of ships leaving Europe. https://thestonepath.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/you-should-have-been-here-yesterday-part-1/

Uss George WashWhen 23-year-old Bela Gross left France in 1923 aboard the U.S.S. George Washington, he had a passport, money, a career as a linotype operator and dreams of a better life. He left behind his heritage and his history. He was hoping to locate surviving relatives to replace those he lost in the White Terror events in Hungary. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Terror_(Hungary) 

quarantine-2

In November of 1923, 218 immigrants were detained on House Island. Coincidentally, it was the same time as the National Council of Jewish Women of Portland established the kosher kitchen at the Quarantine Station. https://thestonepath.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/no-coincidence-no-story-part-2/

Bela Gross was one of those immigrants.

The Custom House Inspector determined – incorrectly – that the Russian quota had already been met. Allowing Bela to enter the US would exceed the quota. He denied entry.

Rather than be returned to Europe, Bela Gross jumped into the dark waters of Casco Bay. Patrolman Thomas Conley followed him into the bay. Officer Conley was born in 1883, the son of Galway emigrants and lived on Munjoy Hill. (https://thestonepath.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/no-coincidence-no-story-part-2/) His brother was the well-known boxer Bartley Connolly. One of my closest friends growing up was Michael Connolly. (Yes, a relative.)

Bela art

Friday, November 16, 1923: Boston Herald headline:

Is Rescued After Leap Into Harbor – Immigrant Feared He Would Be Unable to Enter U.S.

…After great difficulty, customs men rescued Gross with a line and he was taken to police headquarters.

He was a billiard hall keeper before becoming the first Jewish police officer in Portland in 1912. Patrolman Simon Rubinoff, a speaker of Russian, interviewed Gross and discovered that Gross,

orphaned at an early age, had wandered from Russia to France where he obtained a Russian passport and visa…(and) feeling quite alone in the world, he was attempting to come here to live with an uncle in Detroit.

Following the rescue, it was learned that Bela had lost his passport. At that moment, he became a man without a country. (Think Tom Hanks movie: The Terminal partially inspired by the 17-year-stay of Mehran Karimi Nasseri in the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Terminal I, Paris, France from 1988 to 2006.)

Deported from Portland and not allowed to return to France or Germany, Bela was detained on the U.S.S. America for several months. His fate would be determined by the filing of a habeas corpus suit in the Federal Court of New York by his uncle in Detroit.

Docket image

For $20.00 you can obtain a copy of the Federal Court files from the National Archives in Kansas City. The case documents includes a transcript of his interview, the filing by his ‘relator’ Eugene Reinitz against the Commissioner of Immigration, legal arguments and the rending of the decision by Judge Winslow.

From those documents, I learned that Bela Gross was a Jewish Russian. I will never know if he ate in the kosher kitchen on House Island. I will never know if any of the National Council of Jewish Women of Portland offered him sustenance before he threw himself into the icy waters of Casco Bay rather than “…live a life with a lonely heart.”

The headline of the Boston Herald dated Thursday, February 14, 1924, read:

“Without Country” Admitted to U.S. — Court Finds Error in First Deportation of Gross

 There are 217 untold stories about those held on House Island in 1923 when Bela Gross made his decision to jump overboard.

There are other stories of those held at the Quarantine and Immigration Station between 1908 and 1937 when it was closed.

We may never hear them.

Fort Scammel

It has been 200+ years since Fort Scammell was erected to protect the entrance to Portland Harbor. President Jefferson, concerned with increasing British aggression, ordered the construction of the second system forts that included Fort Scammel, Fort Preble and Fort Sumner.

Fort_Scammel

The granite for Fort Scammel was quarried on Mount Waldo and brought by stone sloops to the island. Wharves on the west side of the island were constructed for the off-loading of the stones, as was a stone cutting shed. Stones were unloaded and moved using block and tackle.

GraniteNot only were the stones for Fort Scammel prepared on House Island, but also the stones for Fort Gorges and Fort Preble. Stones were moved from the cutting area to the east bastion by way of a short narrow gauge railroad.

….The British are not coming

In June of 1812 the United States declared war on England. Fort Scammel was garrisoned during the War of 1812 (1812-1814), but the fort’s guns only fired once in August of 1813 on a British Privateer in Whitehead Passage. A month later in September 1813 a British Flag of Truce party landed at the Fort to negotiate for the release of British prisoners from the HMS Boxer captured after a battle with the USS Enterprise off Pemaquid Point on 5 September 1813.

This year is the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner http://www.starspangled200.com/

According to Portland fort historian Kenneth Thompson, the British originally planned to invade the U.S. through the Portland Harbor.

The presence of the 3 earth and gun battery militia forts proved formidable and the British decided to attack Baltimore instead.

Maryland played a pivotal role during the War of 1812, particularly during 1814 when the British captured and burned Washington, D.C. and then made their way toward Baltimore. The British planned to attack Baltimore by land at North Point and by sea at Fort McHenry, which stood in defense of the Baltimore Harbor. It was during the bombardment of Fort McHenry that Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born attorney brought by truce ship to negotiate the release of an American prisoner, was inspired to write the words to what became the United States’ National Anthem.

In the 1860’s, Thomas Lincoln Casey was assigned to Maine to oversee construction of Fort Knox and Forts Gorges and the redesign of Fort Scammel and Fort Preble.

After the Civil War, he was assigned to oversee construction on the Washington Monument He served as the Chief of Engineers for the US Army Corps of Engineers 1888- 1895 and was the engineer for the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building (1890-1897).

In 1954 Hilda Cushing, whose family owned House Island until recently, wanted to see the fort preserved and was quoted as saying,

“You can’t have tomorrow without today.”

Some people will look at a slab of granite and see an unused block of stone.

But I see the marks made by the hands of men who quarried the stone and constructed granite wharves and forts.

Some people will look the remnants of the Quarantine and Immigration Station – the original detention center, the doctor’s residence and the hospital – and see land for development.

But I hear the voices of those who came to America hoping for a better life for themselves and their children.

Some people will look at a fort that fired only one shot in defense of Portland and not understand its role in protecting the entire bay.

But I know that the architecture has more significance and its long history is of greater value than the firing of canon.

It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present, over a mutual concern for the future.

William J. Murtagh, First Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

If you wish to be a part of the conversation regarding the possible historic district designation of House Island and Fort Scammel, PLEASE attend the Historic Preservation Board Hearing at Portland City Hall, Wednesday, October 1, 7:30 pm.

This is the first step in a multi phase process.

If you are unable to attend, please send comments to Deb Andrews, dga@portlandmaine.gov.

**

House Island Analysis of Eligibility As a Local Historic District

Report prepared by tti-architects for Greater Portland Landmarks is available on line: http://me-portland.civicplus.com/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/894?fileID=3899

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4 comments on “Sacred Spaces – Part 2

  1. Lynn Heinemann says:

    Hi Jo —

    Just a quick note to tell you that my father also came on the USS George Washington — but in July 1938 — long after Bela Gross.

    As a matter of fact, I have 8 menus from that trip — “Koscher Speisekartes” dated July 16-22, 1938 that we found when clearing out our old house.

    Dad always told us that when he was deployed as an Army physician during the war, he was on the same boat — converted to a troop ship — going back to Europe.

  2. Marianne Rothschild says:

    Great story on Bela Gross! Well done.

  3. B. Amore says:

    Very vivid writing on multiple aspects of the immigration story – really brings it to LIFE!
    Thanks for such sensitive sharing – a mirror of many of the immigration stories I researched when I did the Life line project at Ellis Island. We are all sons and daughters of immigrants. Good luck on the path!

  4. Margaret says:

    Your research and thoughts have wings through this blog and other avenues. Bravo for sharing these immigration stories/facts. They certainly should impact our collective perspective.

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