Galveston’s port was once the gateway for thousands of immigrants to the United States
Paul Ray Heinrich wore gloves when he searched the pages of a 150-year-old ship’s registry at the Galveston and Texas History Center at Rosenberg Library.
The ship was the Fortuna, which sailed out of Bremen, Germany to Galveston in 1866. Among the passengers were Heinrich’s great-grandfather Wencelslas Heinrich and great-grandmother Magdaline Heinrich and six children, including his grandfather Joseph.
“They walked from their home in Austria to Bremen,” Heinrich, who lives in La Marque, said. “It took them 57 days at sea. And they weren’t on Carnival Cruise Line.”
The family didn’t stay in Galveston. Like many immigrants who came through Galveston’s port, they settled elsewhere in Texas. But when Joseph was 21, he moved back to the island.
30,000 passenger ships
More than 130,000 immigrants came through the Port of Galveston from 1846 to 1948, said Jami Durham, a historian with the Galveston Historical Foundation. Many Germans arrived on the island in the 1840s and would continue to move to Texas in the 19th century.
Immigrants came before 1845, the year Texas became a state, but existing records are from later. The first official immigrant station on Galveston Island opened in 1853 at Pier 29, Durham said.
Officials processed 30,000 passenger ships from 1892 to 1950. Many of the ships made repeated journeys to Galveston from European ports such as Liverpool and Bremen.
Italians, Greeks, French, Poles, Irish and Serbian men, women and children came through the port, not necessarily to stay in Galveston, but to start a new life in other communities in Texas or the Midwest. Some descendants of those immigrants moved to Galveston in later generations.
Galveston often was described as the “Ellis Island of the West” or a “Second Ellis Island.” Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the entry for more than 12 million immigrants to the United States as the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954.
Working with immigrants
Islander Dee Dee Perugini had two sets of grandparents and two sets of great-grandparents who survived the 1900 Storm, which killed more than 6,000 people in Galveston and the mainland. Her family is rooted in many Galveston institutions. On her paternal side, the Shaws of Germany and the Tiernans of Ireland arrived in Galveston in the 19th century as newcomers.
The same was true of her maternal grandparents, Charles A. and Elizabeth Anderson, who arrived as immigrants to Galveston from Sweden.
“My grandmother worked with the immigrants,” Perugini said.
Several churches and organizations helped immigrants who stayed in Galveston. Immigrant homes and hotels opened to help newcomers adjust to a new world. The German Immigrant Home opened in 1908 at 2033 Strand with the Rev. Fred Bruckmann managing it.
Foreign passenger ships docked at Pier 29 for most of the 19th century. Immigrants couldn’t just wander into town. Doctors examined newcomers while U.S. Customs officers searched their belongings.
Outbreaks of yellow fever in Galveston in 1839 and in 1867 killed thousands of people, and in part was the impetus for moving the quarantine stations eventually to Pelican Island. Someone sick with a contagious and deadly disease could start an epidemic.
In 1892, the U.S. government opened the Pelican Island station to better control a possible disease outbreak. Hurricanes damaged the station, but officials rebuilt it several times. That station remained open until 1948.
Lonely and heartsick
A heartsick Clara Reinhardt, 18, longed to be with her boyfriend, Fred Nussenblatt, back in Germany.
She had just arrived in Galveston in 1909 on the passenger ship SS Frankfurt out of Bremen, Germany, along with four cousins.
She left a bit of family lore, her granddaughter Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler said.
“It’s probably just hyperbole,” she said. Then she shared the story.
Reinhardt worked as a housekeeper in the Levy family home when she got to Galveston. She neither read nor spoke English, she was an Orthodox Jew living in a cosmopolitan town and she was lonely and heartsick. Clara Reinhardt missed her boyfriend terribly.
Members of the Levy family found her crying one day and asked her what was wrong.
She had a brother in Europe who needed to come to the United States, she said.
“I miss him,” Reinhardt said.
The Levy family got passage for her brother to travel to Galveston in 1911. When the young man disembarked from the SS Hannover, he embraced Reinhardt in public on the dock. The embrace appeared to be more than a brother’s hug. People with raised eyebrows began to suspect this was not her brother, but her boyfriend.
Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler, who lives in Galveston, thought it was an exaggerated family joke, but she did a little research and found the exaggeration was the truth.
Her grandmother and grandfather pretended to be siblings so they could be together.
Fred Nussenblatt, a painter, listed on the Hannover’s manifest that he had a sister named Clara, that she had paid his passage and that Clara was the relative he was planning to live with.
They got married that same year in Galveston.
The Galveston Movement
Clara Reinhardt and Fred Nussenblatt arrived in Galveston as part of an international effort to relocate Jews to the American Midwest. More than 10,000 Jews moved from Europe to Galveston from 1907 to 1914 through The Galveston Movement.
Attacks against Jewish communities in Europe increased in the early 1900s. While many escaped pogroms by immigrating to the northeastern United States, that option became more tenuous. The Jewish Immigrant Information Bureau created The Galveston Movement to solve both issues.
The goal was to reduce the number of Jews coming through Ellis Island and to keep anti-Semitism down, Rabbi James “Jimmy” Kessler of Galveston said.
James Kessler, who is married to Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler, founded the Texas Jewish Historical Society. He doesn’t have ancestors who arrived in Galveston by ship, but he has studied the topic in detail.
A key actor in The Galveston Movement was Henry Cohen, who was the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston from 1888 to 1949. Cohen grew up in London, England with the playwright Israel Zangwill. The two men spread the word about Galveston, not as a destination for settlers, but as a landing spot for Jews on the way to Midwest communities.
“Cohen was the traffic cop in Galveston,” Kessler said.
He directed immigrants to other destinations, places where others in the movement had arranged jobs in small Jewish communities in places like Iowa and Nebraska.
“They would ask, ‘Do you need a cobbler or dressmaker?’” Kessler said. “We’ll send you someone like that.”
But they didn’t send competition, he said. And they did intend for most of the Jews to settle in the Midwest, not in Texas and not in Galveston.
“Galveston was not that involved as a community,” Kessler said. “I don’t want to be rude about it.”
But some Jews stayed. And some who settled elsewhere had descendants who found their way back to Galveston.
One of the frustrations of researching immigrants who entered Galveston at Pier 29 or at Pelican Island is that many records are gone.
About 20 years ago, Kessler asked a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services official what it meant when the agency said some records were “irretrievable.”
He learned it meant they were probably destroyed, Kessler said. Either natural disasters such as hurricanes, sloppy housekeeping or a desire to declutter an overcrowded storage room full of dusty papers led to disappearing records.
The Texas Seaport Museum at Pier 21 in Galveston contains a list of passengers arriving to the seaport city from in 1844 to 1949. Records from 1871 to 1894 are missing from The National Archives, a large gap during a busy immigration period. Other records are faint copies of originals and are unreadable.
‘A Proud Man’
Larry Kriticos, of Galveston, learned how to speak Greek from his mother and father. His mother was from Sparta and his father was from Crete. She arrived in Galveston in 1904, and he moved to the island in 1921.
“Both sides were in the restaurant and food business,” said Kriticos, who with his brother, Tikie, owns Olympia Grill restaurants in Galveston. “It was something immigrants would deal with: making food and purveying food.”
University of Texas Medical Branch doctors used Kriticos’ father to communicate with foreign sailors, he said.
“He spoke Spanish, Italian, English, Greek and a little Turkish,” Kriticos said. “He was a proud man.”
The immigrant beat
The Galveston Daily News reported immigration regularly with details on ships that arrived and who disembarked. A Feb. 8, 1910 story in the newspaper featured the headline “Steamship Frankfurt in with Passengers.” The reporter wrote that 220 passengers were on board and that 40 were detained for medical reasons.
The reporter was at Pier 29 all day, relaying in the article information about the cargo unloaded from the ship and the accounts from the crew about the rough passage from Bremen.
“The Galveston Immigrants’ Home, the Hebrew Home and the Hotel Texas accommodated nearly all of the immigrants who were landed,” the article said. All three homes, government officials and railroad agents worked together to move immigrants from the dock to other points west.
“Two little girls, Rachel and Eliza Gilher, were among the cabin passengers,” the article said. The girls, 10 and 11, traveled to Galveston from Romania. They were unaccompanied. Officials put them on a train on their way to California to join their father.
The melting pot
In addition to all the Europeans funneling through Galveston, immigrants from elsewhere came to the island. Mexicans and Chinese settled in Galveston, Durham said.
African Americans also arrived in Galveston, many as slaves. In 1850, Galveston had 673 slaves. In 1860, there were 1,178.
Some African-Americans also lived as free men. In 1850, there were 30 free African Americans, but in 1860, there were only two.
The film “Galveston: Gateway on the Gulf,” shown regularly at the Pier 21 Theater, documents the contributions all immigrants made to the island. It concludes that so many people from different cultures living in proximity made Galveston a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city on the Gulf of Mexico.
Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler remembers growing up with neighborhood grocery stores. On one corner was a German store. Down the block was an Italian store and a Serbian store. Her childhood friends in the neighborhood had parents who had come from different countries to start a new life.
“They were all good friends,” she said. “And they all were all first-generation Americans.”