Mormon Emigration in 1869: Did immigrants need a Mormon Hotel?

November 21st, 2012, by Kent Larsen

Last week I wrote about a November 1869 article from the New York Times that claimed that the LDS Church was about to build a “Temple” in New York City. But the building described was more like a hotel for immigrants with an integrated meetinghouse than a temple as we know it today. But the idea of even a Mormon immigration way station in the city deserves some consideration. Would such a structure have helped? Was it needed?

By 1869 the Church had brought companies of immigrants through New York City for the previous 14 years, building some expertise in how to efficiently get people off of incoming ships and onto trains headed to the west. Arrivals had averaged more than 2,300 a year for the previous 10 years, including over 3, 700 in 1862. And in the most recent year, 1868, nearly 3,200 had arrived on 5 different voyages.

The New York Times article describes some of the challenges that these immigrants faced:

… The reasons for the erection of such an establishment are the increase of Mormon emigration and the difficulties under which the emigrants labor on their arrival here. There is hardly a European packet comes to our shores that does not bring a Mormon family. Agents are stationed in all parts of Europe, whose duty it is to send the United States such of the faithful as are ready and willing to travel Westward toward Utah, their promised land. Most of them are Swedes, Germans, Welsh, English and Scotch, and have no friends or relatives in the Atlantic States. They were regularly consigned by the European agent to the agent in New York, whose business it is to look after and provide them with boarding places until they can shift for themselves.

Like most other strangers in our city, they often fall into the hands of the harpies who are ever on the watch for like unsuspecting prey, and are mulcted of their money, despoiled of their effects, and left to wander houseless and homeless through our streets. With men this is bad enough, but with the females it is terrible. Their miseries in many instances only began with robbery and starvation. The fate of living death is often theirs. These dangers will be lessened, if not entirely obviated, by the existence of the Mormon Temple. Emigrants will step from the ship to it, where they will find warm friends ready to shelter and aid them. …

Before 1869 most Mormon immigrants arrived on sailing ships, spending at least a month and sometimes as much as two months traveling from Liverpool to New York City. After spending a few days in New York, the immigrant companies would board trains in New Jersey for the west, traveling to the end of the line in Omaha or western Nebraska, where they were outfitted for overland travel to Salt Lake City. I’m sure that after a month at sea, many wanted to rest for a few days before continuing on.

Despite the best efforts of the Church, not all immigrants went on to Utah immediately. In the mid 1850s as much as 1/3rd of Mormon companies would stay for some time, usually to earn money to travel on to Utah. That practice was soon discouraged, and the Church tried to ensure that every immigrant had sufficient funds to finish their journey. Still, problems arose because of accidents, illness, and exceptions to the overall policy, all of which contributed to many members staying in New York for some time. This is likely the source of the “three hundred families of Latter-day Saints in Brooklyn and as many, if not more, in New York” that the Times’ article reports. And individual stories of immigrants indicate that those working to earn train fare to continue were spread throughout northern New Jersey, Philadelphia and environs, Long Island and Connecticut.

In addition, the overall number of immigrants was at near record levels in 1869, with 3,200 arriving in 1868 and well over 2,300 in 1869. It would have been easy to assume that the number of immigrants would increase in subsequent years to 4,000 or more, perhaps increasing the need for some place to put immigrants temporarily.

Given these factors, a hotel like that described in the Times’ article might have made sense—unless you looked more carefully. And much of the reason that no such building was ever attempted might be due to the changes that, already in 1869, occurred to make the trip substantially less time consuming and less stressful on immigrants, and essentially less expensive.

Perhaps the most significant difficulty with the idea of a Mormon hotel in New York City was the pattern of immigration. In general, the Mormon immigration had been made up of large companies of several hundred immigrants all traveling together to Salt Lake. From 3 to 8 companies made the journey each year. To accommodate a company in a hotel like that described would have required a building capable of housing up to 800 or 1000 people. But since the groups only stayed for a day or two before leaving for the west, such a large facility would remain empty (or need to house others) for most of the rest of the year.

To have a building that housed Mormon immigrants most of the immigration season (approximately April to October), the companies would need to be smaller (probably less than 100) and more frequent (once a week perhaps). But smaller companies would likely have been more expensive, since Mormon immigration benefited from volume discounts given by the passenger ship lines, and may have required using more than one ship line. And smaller companies would not have benefited from having a group of returning missionaries accompany them — instead most groups would have had just one or two missionaries shepherding them to Zion.

If the structure of immigration made it unlikely that a facility in New York City would be used much, the development of transportation starting in 1869 reduced or eliminated most of the reasons for it.

Already in 1869 the Church had switched from sailing ships to steam-driven ships, cutting travel time on the water from as much as 6 or 8 weeks to 2 weeks or less. While sail was sometimes cheaper in 1869, it was on its way out and the Church didn’t use it after this point. Also in 1869, the golden spike was driven in Promontory Utah, opening transcontinental train service and travel all the way to Utah, cutting travel time further. In the end, the trip from Liverpool to Utah was less than 3 weeks, where it had often taken more than 3 months a decade earlier.

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