Stories from PA History
The Peopling of Pennsylvania: The Creation of a Multicultural Society
The Peopling of Pennsylvania: The Creation of a Multicultural Society
Chapter 3: Huddled Masses, 1865-1930

View of International Navigation Co. Emigrant Station building at Washington Avenue landing, with train tracks leading to buildings.
International Navigation Company Immigration Station, (Washington Immigration...
The Pennsylvania Railroad's decision to open the markerWashington Street Immigration Station along the Delaware River in 1873 proved a shrewd business investment. Already in control of rail service, the transportation titan sought to expand its share of the lucrative trans-Atlantic passenger market and cut into New York's preeminence. A massive, indeed, unprecedented surge in foreign immigration would bring 25 million newcomers to America in the next fifty years, and Pennsylvania's population would soar from 3.5 million in 1870 to more than 8.7 million in 1920.

  Because mining companies owned their employees' housing, striking workers risked their homes as well as their jobs. Shown here is an eviction during the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902.
flip zoom
Coal miners evicted from company-owned housing, northeast Pennsylvania, 1902....
During these same fifty years, Pennsylvania emerged as an industrial colossus, and technological innovations transformed the nature of industrial work and created a huge demand for unskilled laborers. In response, southern and eastern European immigrants with vastly different cultures, languages, and ethnic allegiances settled in mill towns likemarker Cambria City and markerVandergrift, railroad centers likemarker Altoona, and coal patch communities like markerWindber in bituminous regions of southwest Pennsylvania and Shenandoah in the anthracite fields of the northeast.

Children from the Saint Casimir School dressed in Polish costume for the General...
In industrial towns and cities across Pennsylvania and the nation, Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Russians, Lithuanians, Magyars, Ukrainians, Greeks, Ruthenians, and other groups speaking a cacophony of languages created stable ethnic neighborhoods with their own institutions and folkways. At first the vast majority spoke little or no English, and clung to their separate cultures, rituals, and beliefs. A majority were young men who traveled alone, but family members and sometimes whole villages followed each other in what historians call a "chain migration," then clustered together in tight but overlapping neighborhoods, anchored by churches, synagogues, and social clubs. Ethnic identities were "transplanted" and transformed in a process of assimilation and cultural survival that was at the heart of the immigrant experience.

In 1910, Pennsylvania had approximately 1.5 million foreign-born inhabitants-almost a half million more than in 1900. (In Scranton, Johnstown, and Shenandoah, one in four residents were born outside the United States.) This new wave of immigrants included large numbers of Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox Christians, who adhered to denominational alliances forged within a larger nationalist identity. There were, for example, Slovak Catholics and Lutherans; Catholic Poles and adherents of the Polish National Catholic Church; and Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, and Serbian Orthodox.

This separateness carried over into ethnic parishes and schools likemarker St. Xavier's Academy near Latrobe and Shenandoah's markerSt. Michael's Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, just blocks from the St. George's Lithuanian Catholic Church; both of which observed the common practice of recruiting native-language priests from Europe. Strong ethnic associations like the Slovak Sokol Society, and the Greek (Ruthenian) Catholic Union flourished in steel and coal communities. Much like the Irish Loyal Sons of St. Patrick and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the German Turnverein, Italian-American Cultural Centers, and Jewish aid societies, these ethnic alliances and benevolent societies provided a broad range of economic and social services for members.

Large crowd of strikers outdoor meeting
Meeting of striking workers at McKees Rocks, PA, August 5, 1909.
Industrialization transformed the everyday experiences of all working-class Pennsylvanians, but ethnic differences placed limits on union solidarity. Thousands died each year on Pennsylvania's railroads and in its steel mills and mines, all heavily dependent upon immigrant labor. Immigrants suffered the greatest number of deaths in the deadly mine disasters atmarker Avondale (1867), markerMammoth (1891), markerTwin Shaft (1896), markerDarr (1907) , and markerPancoast (1911), all of which fueled worker anger and struggles to organize. The execution of the Irish marker Molly Maguires ]in 1877, the "massacre" of seven striking miners by private Coal and Iron Police at markerMorewood in 1891, and of nineteen Eastern-European laborers outsidemarker Lattimer in September 1897, demonstrated the growing labor turmoil and nativist backlash in the industrial era.

In the struggle for better wages and working conditions, immigrants and other workers participated in deadly and sometimes prolonged strikes, including themarker Homestead Strike of 1892, the nationalmarker Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902,, themarker McKees Rock Strike of 1909, and the greatmarker Steel Strike of 1919. Public outrage at the deadly violence of the Coal and Iron Police prompted the Commonwealth in 1905 to establish the markerPennsylvania State Police, which immigrant steelworkers soon named the "Pennsylvania Cossacks" for their brutal strikebreaking tactics.

Formal portrait of Andrew Carnegie standing and leaning on the back of a leather chair.
flip zoom
Andrew Carnegie, by B. L. H. Dabbs, 1896.
Pennsylvania's coal patch settlements and mill towns also became the forges where young men and women born abroad or to immigrant parents worked to improve their lives. None was more famous than Scottish-bornmarker Andrew Carnegie,whose rags-to-riches story became the personification of the American dream. Irish-Americanmarker Terence V. Powderly became mayor of Scranton and then national president of the Knights of Labor, America's largest labor union. He later served as U.S. Commissioner of Immigration. Pittsburgh-bornmarker Honus "The Flying Dutchman" Wagner was the first of America's great German-American baseball players. In 1910, Reading's German-American voters helped elect Socialistmarker James Maurer to the Pennsylvania legislature, and then elected a Socialist mayor and city council in the 1920s. Scottish-bornmarker William Wilson, made his way from the coal mines of Tioga County to the U.S. Congress, and in 1913 became the nation's first Secretary of Labor. The son of Italian immigrants, markerMichael Musmanno led the successful 1920s campaign to abolish Pennsylvania's infamous Coal and Iron Police.

African-American worker at the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company, Coatesville Plant
African-American worker in a steel mill, Coatesville, PA, circa 1920.
As labor conflict intensified, a number of Pennsylvania industries followed the practice of markersteel companies in recruiting southern black workers. Between 1900 and 1910, Pennsylvania's African-American population increased by 25 percent to 196,000. Racial tensions ran high in industrial communities that had experienced a surge in both European and black migration. In 1911, several thousand spectators looked on as a white mob lynched markeran African American steel worker outside of Coatesville. During World War I, violent race riots in Chester and Philadelphia gained national attention.

Representatives of participating nations gather at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on October 26, 1918 to sign the Declaration of Common Aims of the Independent Mid-European Nations. Seated at the center, directly under the crack of the Liberty Bell, is Dr. Thomas G. Masaryk.
Thomas G. Masaryk–sitting just to left of the crack of the Liberty Bell–Philadelphia,...
Since many of Pennsylvania's immigrants came from central and eastern Europe, it is not surprising that some were ambivalent about America's entry into the First World War. Indeed, like President Woodrow Wilson, Governormarker Martin G. Brumbaugh, a Pennsylvania German and pacifist, at first opposed participation in the war. Once the United States was involved, however, Pennsylvania's immigrant and African-American communities rallied in support. In Pittsburgh, Ignacy Jan Paderwesky in 1917 began a national campaign to recruit an army ofmarker Polish-American workers for the liberation of Poland. There, too, Czech and Slovak leaders in 1918 signed themarker Pittsburgh Agreement calling for an independent Czechoslovakia. One of the signatories to the Pittsburgh Agreement was Slovak priest markerJoseph Murgas, who had immigrated to Wilkes-Barre in 1896.

Uncle Sam gathering men ("Spy," "Traitor," "WWI," "German money" and "Sinn Fein") in front of United States Capital with flag, "Sedition law passed."
"Now for a round-up," a political cartoon in support of the Sedition Act of...
The war also unleashed a fresh round of anti-immigrant sentiment on the home front. Fear and suspicion of those deemed "alien" and "un-American" resulted in new government surveillance programs and the prosecution of leftist journalists and labor organizers. The post-war "Red Scare" led by Pennsylvanian and U.S. Attorney Generalmarker A. Mitchell Palmer included the forced deportation of hundreds of suspected radicals and enactment of restrictive federal immigration laws that all but closed the doors to European immigration for the next forty years. In this reactionary backlash, Pennsylvania continued to be a battleground. In 1923, the mayor of Johnstown, courting the favor of western Pennsylvania's powerful Ku Klux Klan, drove more than 1,600 black steelworkers and their families from the city.

The decade following the Great War was fraught with irony. The bubble of industrial prosperity helped many Pennsylvania immigrants and their children gain a more secure economic foothold while preserving traditional social customs and rituals. New scientific and social theories, however, provided fresh fodder for yet another cycle of discrimination justified by what the advocates called "100% Americanism." Even in prosperity, the Commonwealth's African-American, Jewish, and Catholic populations faced a rising tide of intolerance and nativist resentment against Pennsylvania and America's new social realities.

Back to Top