Washington Avenue Steamship Landing and Immigration station
Christopher Columbus Blvd. At Washington Ave.
The bustling Washington Avenue waterfront was the site of Philadelphia's immigrant receiving station from the mid-1870s through 1915. A transportation hub, the avenue was also criss–crossed with the various lines of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The railroad owned the Washington Avenue wharves, from which their trains transported raw materials, produce, sugar, grain, finished goods, and people—including newly arrived immigrants—to points within Philadelphia and across the country.
Before the late 19th-century construction of the station and the establishment of fast, modern steamship service to Philadelphia, most European immigrants arrived in New York City and took a train to Philadelphia, or came directly to Philadelphia by slow-moving sailing ship. After the first steamships began docking at Washington Avenue in 1873, the Pennsylvania Railroad built the two-story immigration station to receive the rapidly increasing number of immigrants arriving from eastern and southern Europe via the new Red Star and American lines.
English and Irish and immigrants made up the bulk of Philadelphia's foreign-born population through the mid-1800s. They arrived on sailing ships originating mostly from the port of Liverpool, landing at Philadelphia in the warmer months when the Delaware River wasn't frozen. From 1799 until 1893, all ships destined for Philadelphia docked first at the Lazaretto, a quarantine hospital a few miles south of Philadelphia in Tinicum Township, Delaware County, that was built in response to the devastating outbreak of yellow fever in 1793. At the Lazaretto ships were inspected and immigrants received medical examinations before proceeding up the Delaware to the Washington Avenue piers. (In 2006, historic preservation groups reached a deal with Tinicum Township, which owns the Lazaretto, to develop a preservation plan for the historic structure.)
Between the 1870s and 1915, tens of thousands of primarily eastern and southern European immigrants disembarked at Washington Avenue piers from steamships departing from ports in Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and Italy. Those who stayed settled in the nearby waterfront neighborhoods like Southwark, Moyamensing, Northern Liberties, Port Richmond, and Kensington that offered available jobs and affordable housing. But thousands of other boarded Pennsylvania Railroad trains to Pittsburgh, Chicago, and beyond.
In the years before World War I, immigrant traffic grew enough that Philadelphia began to receive immigrant ships at additional piers along the Delaware, including Fitzwater, Reed, Callowhill, and Vine streets. Plans for a larger processing station akin to New York's Ellis Island fizzled when World War I and the introduction of strict immigration quotas in the 1920s choked off the steady flow of immigrants.
The Immigration Act of 1965 eliminated the quotas and paved the way for immigration from beyond Europe. The so-called "new immigrants"—meaning non-European—came from and still come from South and Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Although new Philadelphians no longer arrive by steamship, Washington Avenue remains a center of immigrant activity. Since the early 1990s, the predominately industrial character of Washington Avenue has been transformed into a multiethnic, multi–use mix of retail, wholesale, and ethnic restaurants. The avenue is increasingly punctuated by Southeast Asian and Mexican businesses serving these two fast-growing immigrants communities in South Philadelphia.