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Flying the Quarantine flag

Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911


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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An immigrant and her baby, tagged for transportation to some town in the western part of the United States.

     But, when the term of Governor Pattison came to an end, his factory inspector was forced out of office. Through the influence of the ex-governor, he was offered an inspectorship at Ellis Island at five dollars a day, perhaps the best thing available.

     "This," he said to me, "was a decided comedown, and yet it seemed to be a working out, in a strange way, of that vague resolution of my youth. I was much interested in immigration. I looked into the service, saw opportunity there, and so accepted. It has occurred to me, since, that this was a critical point in my career. If I had declined the place because the salary and power were much less than those to which I had become accustomed, or if I had let pride influence me, I believe that I should have been cast up on the shoals of life. I will confess that I was in danger of it. The yielding to false pride is a mistake which has wrecked the careers of many men."

     In his new field, Inspector Watchorn very soon made himself felt. His reports on sweat-shop conditions on the East Side of New York City attracted attention in Washington. The commissioner general of immigration, on a visit to Ellis Island, sought the inspector out and complimented him in person. He was sent to Roumania to investigate the causes of the immense immigration from that country to the United States, and made recommendations to the prime minister there that resulted in the granting of permission to the Jews to work in the soil, a privilege which had been denied them. He inspected the conditions of immigration along the Mexican border, and then, returning to Ellis Island, began a crusade against a long established ptactice in which, to say the least of it, there was no protection for the immigrants.


     The inspector's activity in this work of reform aroused no enthusiasm on the part of some of hjs superiors. Indeed, it created a strong desire to shelve him, and it was at length thought that this had been done when he was assigned to the port of Victoria, on the Pacific coast of Canada. Surely he was at a safe distance.

     Yet it was by way of this remote port that he reached the commissioner's chair. It was discovered that many thousands of immigrants were annually coming into the United States through Canada without inspection. Inspector Watchorn was asked by the government to put a stop to this.

     He did so. He established headquarters in Montreal, and made arrangements to inspect the immigrants before they should take trains for the "States." The steamship and railway companies put obstacles in his way, and he announced to them that, if he could not make his inspections in Canada, he would hold up every train on the border till the work was done.

     The railways gave in. Inspection stations were established at Quebec and Montreal, but Inspector Watchorn discovered that there was still a leak and that thousands were still getting in without scrutiny. One day he boarded a train at Montreal and for three days and nights traveled with the immigrants as one of them. He learned that they were being sold tickets to Winnipeg and other centers in Western Canada, and from there were crossing the line. He began to establish stations at these places, and did not stop until he had a complete chain from Quebec to Victoria.


     When he was summoned from Canada, by President Roosevelt, to take the place of commissioner of immigration, those who had been under him in the Canadian service, and from whom he had rigidly exacted the full quota of their duty, presented him with an eloquent testimonial of appreciation. The transportation magnates of Canada, who had opposed him so strenuously at the start, gave him a farewell dinner in Montreal and made eu1ogistic speeches.

     "I need hardly say," remarked the commissioner, toward the end of our talk, "that I am glad I migrated to the land of opportunity. When I returned to England for the Queen' s Jubilee, and the procession was passing through the streets of London, some one unfurled from a window a big American flag. Nothing else in all the glittering pageant thrilled me as did that sight of 'Old Glory' waving in the sunlight above those British heads. My small son, as stalwart a little American as ever lived, jumped to his feet when he saw it and called out, in a shrill treble that was heard for yards around :—

     "There it is, father; there it is!"

     "My brothers and sisters have risen here. I tell you this story of my career for what it is worth. If it proves anything, it is that immigrants may come to these shores strong in hope, if, in the words of Tennyson, they have within them the power 'to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"

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