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Robert Watchorn — The Man Who Climbed Out

The Life-Story of a Boy Immigrant who has become Commission of Immigration

by J. Herbert Welch


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Source: Success Magazine, June 1905, pages 386-388.

Robert Watchorn -- The Man Who Climbed Out

     In an English coal mine, thirty years ago, a boy named Robert Watchorn labored. He pushed cars through black corridors for long hours every day, and the indications were that for long years, probably for a lifetime, he would be a toiler in sunless depths, one of thousands of grimy slaves to the world's demand for coal.

     He had no reason to expect more than this. At work with him in the mines were great numbers of men who were stolidly traveling the hopeless path that begins with labor underground, at the age of ten or twelve, and brings its follower back, prematurely aged from toil, to the tasks and pay of childhood.

     The conditions were as hard for Watchorn as for them. He had no better ground than they for hoping to rise into the sunlight of life. But he did hope. Unlike the great majority, he made a fight against the fate of the average English coal miner.

     To learn about this struggle, and its notable results, I recently went to Ellis Island, New York Harbor, to talk with Robert Watchorn, commissioner of immigration.


     "I was eleven when I went to work in the mines of Derbyshire," he said, "but it was not long before I began to feel that life was worth too much to spend in the black bowels of the earth. I made up my mind to climb out."

     That climb from the mines has lifted Robert Watchorn to an executive office which President Roosevelt, when making the appointment, a few months ago, said he considered one of the most important at his disposal. He added that he was giving it to a man whose record, subjected to the closest scrutiny, showed diamond-fine.

     The journey of the new commissioner up the slope illustrates, in a significant way, what a friendless youth, with no material resources or advantages, can achieve in the United States by the simple plan of applying all his powers to the performance of every duty.

     "I believe that what has helped me most" he remarked, "has been my aim to do one thing at a time, and so well that any other man will find it extremely difficult to do it better. In the words of St. Paul, — 'this one thing I do'."


     It was in his office in the Immigration Building that Commissioner Watchorn thus announced one of the guiding principles of his life. He was gazing thoughtfully out through a window that commanded a broad view of the harbor, and his eyes rested upon an Atlantic liner that was moving in with dignity from the Narrows.

     "It was a ship like that — the good ship 'Bothnia,'— that brought me to the New World," he said. "As we came up the bay, that May morning in 1880, I crowded to the rail of the steerage deck to view the shores of the land of promise. I don't know why I thought that it promised much for me, but I did. I was twenty, then, and full of confidence. My sole resources consisted of the English equivalent of about ten dollars, and I had no friends in this new country; but I knew that it is the country of opportunity, and that somewhere behind the green hills that were closing around us, or behind the buildings of the great city that rose dimly ahead, I would find my opportunities, the kind I wanted."

     "I had had a chance in England. I had attended an evening school maintained by a philanthropic man named Bone for boys of the mines. When I told him that I had decided to go to America he tried to dissuade me and said he had a plan to provide me with a course in a school of mining. My answer, after thanking him, was that I wanted to be in a land where it is not birth, but worth, that counts. He said that I would be disillusioned, and that he would hold his offer open to me for three years. Soon afterwards I emigrated."

     "When I had landed with the rest at Castle Garden, and stood surveying the trees and well-kept lawns of Battery Park, I was full of ingenuous enthusiasm. I was also very hungry, and I viewed with great interest a pie-stand that had caught my notice. The little experience that followed had an influence on me that has extended to this day."

     The young immigrant with an appetite bought a piece of the pie and handed the merchant a half dollar.

     "Where's my change?"" he asked, after he had finished the pastry.

     "Change!" exclaimed the pieman. "There ain't no change. Wot d'ye expect fur ten cents?"

     "But I gave you a good deal more than that."

     "More nothin'. Chase yerself, or I '11 call a cop."

     He did, and the policeman hustled the youth along without his change.


     "I've had many hard knocks," said the commissioner, in concluding the story of the pie, — "but this one, coming when I was expecting to have the right hand of fellowship held out to me, was one of the hardest of all. It braced me, however, like a dash of cold water. It tightened my. determination to win out, — to overcome the odds which, I realized for the first time, must be faced by a friendless alien. More than this, I then and there made up my mind that, when I had achieved a position in the United States, I would try to do something for helpless immigrants."

     At that moment the commissioner was interrupted by an official who said that he had in the anteroom an immigrant who had just been ordered deported to Russia, and who had asked that his case be appealed.

     "Bring him in," directed the commissioner.

     The immigrant had an intelligent face, and apparently was in the prime of robust manhood. He stood before the big table with the rigidity of a soldier; but his hands trembled, for he was in the presence of the man who represented to him the power of the United States and was about to pass upon his fate.

     "Upon what ground has it been decided to exclude him?" questioned Commissioner Watchorn, studying the alien keenly.

     "No money," the official answered.

     "Has he a trade?""

     "Yes, tinsmithing.""

     "How much did he earn in Russia?"

     "Forty rubles a month.""

     "Is his record good?"


     "Is he healthy?"


     "In view of the fact that he has every lawful requirement for admission to the United States except his temporary lack of funds," said Mr. Watchorn, "I shall recommend through the commissioner general that the secretary of commerce and labor sustain his appeal and allow him to land."

     "An alien who arrives without money," he said, when the immigrant had been taken out, "may be excluded on the ground that he is likely to become a public charge, but in my opinion it is absurd to bar him for lack of money alone. We have to use discretion in these cases. The man who was just in impressed me as a worker."

     "Congress has erected barriers only against immigrants who are found to be criminal or immoral, unsound of body or mind, incompetent, or decrepit from age, and those coming in violation of the contract labor law. A million a year outside of these classes are arriving now. When the population of this country 'reaches one hundred and fifty millions we shall be able to assimilate, because of the increased requirements of the people, two million immigrants a year. If of the right sort, they will not do this nation harm, but good."

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