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Family Revives 'Ellis Island of the Columbia River'

Tom Banse
05/30/2007

Who knew the Northwest had it's own "Ellis Island"? Nearly 100-thousand immigrants passed through the port of entry at Astoria between 1899 and 1938. The U.S. Quarantine Station on the Washington side of the river is now in private hands. The family owners say their nearly forgotten slice of immigration history can shed light on our current immigration debate. Correspondent Tom Banse reports from the mouth of the Columbia River.

TRANSCRIPT

BACK IN 1950, TOM BELL WAS FRESH OUT OF THE NAVY. HE WAS ON THE LOOK OUT FOR A SURPLUS JEEP. SO HE GOT ON THE GOVERNMENT SURPLUS MAILING LIST.

BELL: "About six months later, got a little brochure on this spot, the old United States Quarantine Station, which had approximately five acres of dry land and seven acres of tidelands, and the buildings included."

BELL TOLD HIS DAD ABOUT IT. THE PORTLAND AREA FAMILY BID AT AUCTION. THEY GOT THE EQUIVALENT OF ELLIS ISLAND ON THE COLUMBIA RIVER FOR A SONG.

BELL: "The winning bid was $5,000 by my dad."

THE BUYERS TURNED THE PROPERTY INTO A SALMON FISHING CAMP AND THEN A FAMILY COMPOUND. TOM'S SISTER, NANCY BELL ANDERSON SAYS THE REALIZATION OF WHAT THE FAMILY OWNED DAWNED ON THEM THREE TO FOUR DECADES LATER.

ANDERSON: "The more I got into it, the more fun I had. It's like a detective story."

A STORY THAT GOES BACK TO THE 1890'S. THAT'S WHEN THE GOVERNMENT MADE THIS ONE OF FOUR MAIN PORTS ON THE WEST COAST WHERE IMMIGRANTS WERE ALLOWED TO ENTER THE U-S. [THE OTHERS WERE SAN DIEGO, SAN FRANCISCO (ANGEL ISLAND) AND PORT TOWNSEND, WASHINGTON.] DOCTORS FROM THE PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE INSPECTED ALL ARRIVALS FOR SIGNS OF CONTAGIOUS DISEASES, DISABILITY, INSANITY OR CRIMINALITY. THE SAME PROCESS AS AT ELLIS ISLAND, ONLY HERE ON THE NORTHWEST COAST NOTHING MONUMENTAL WAS BUILT. WE GOT A COLLECTION OF MODEST WEATHERED WOODEN HALLS AND BARRACKS.

ANDERSON: "My mother had done the research and found out that these were called lazarettos. They're specialized quarantine hospitals. Translated that means pesthouse. That was one way we knew to control disease, was to isolate people. So we thought we should have a museum in the pesthouse.

TODAY, THE PESTHOUSE IS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC ON SUMMER SATURDAYS. VISITORS POKE AROUND THE CREAKY BUILDING, LOOKING AT HISTORIC PICTURES, ARTIFACTS, SHIPS' LOGS, AND FRIGHTFUL MEDICAL TOOLS.

MARY HENDRICKSON: "I'm mean, this is a link to our past. If it isn't preserved, our young people won't know."

OREGON COAST OLD-TIMERS MARY AND HUGH HENDRICKSON ARE ON THE TRAIL OF A RELATIVE WHO ONCE WORKED AT THE KNAPPTON COVE STATION.

HUGH HENDRICKSON: "My stepfather's sister's husband— 'kinda far removed!"

OSCAR BERG, WAS HIS NAME. HE WAS ONE OF THE OFFICERS THAT CAME HERE TO INSPECT THE IMMIGRANTS WHEN THEY CAME."

THEY FIND A FLAG ON THE WALL THAT MR. BERG APPARENTLY SAVED.

MARY HENDRICKSON: "It's a shame that we've never been here before."

NANCY ANDERSON HOPES TO SEE THE DAY WHEN THE LITTLE MUSEUM CAN DUPLICATE THE GENEALOGICAL TROVE THAT NEW YORK HARBOR'S ELLIS ISLAND OFFERS. 100,000 IMMIGRANTS PASSED THROUGH THIS WESTERN PORT OF ENTRY. ANDERSON KNOWS WHICH VESSELS CALLED, BUT NOT PEOPLE NAMES.

ANDERSON: "Someday you ought to be able to walk in here and punch a name in just like you can at Ellis Island and say, 'Oh, look. Ole came through here in 1890-whatever,' you know. Literally, they were coming here from all over the world."

FOR NOW, DETECTIVE WORK AT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES TAKES A BACK SEAT TO THE BATTLE AGAINST WOOD ROT AND CRUMBLING FOUNDATIONS. BUT THINGS ARE LOOKING UP. THE KINSMAN FOUNDATION OF MILWAUKIE, OREGON JUST WROTE THAT IT WILL PAY TO REPLACE THE PESTHOUSE ROOF.

NANCY ANDERSON SAYS HER FAMILY'S PLACE IS A VISIBLE EMBLEM THAT THE NATION HAS "ALWAYS STRUGGLED WITH IMMIGRATION." JUDGING FROM THE NEWS, SHE SAYS WE'RE SLOW TO LEARN LESSONS FROM THAT HISTORY.

ANDERSON: "We seem to have this fear of one new group coming in and, oh boy, they're going to take over. History if we look at it, it doesn't happen. We assimilate. We mix together. Really in the long haul, it's OK. We're basically humans."

I'M TOM BANSE ON THE COLUMBIA RIVER SHORE OPPOSITE ASTORIA.

© Copyright 2007, KUOW

06.21.18

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