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A History of Hoboken's Immigrants

Dr. Christina Ziegler-McPherson presented her new book at the museum.

A History of Hoboken's Immigrants A History of Hoboken's Immigrants

Anyone familiar with Hoboken knows that the city has a long history of welcoming immigrants. But even the most accomplished historian can still be surprised when learning about the topic. 

Dr. Christina Ziegler-McPherson shared the surprises she found while researching her new book, Immigrants in Hoboken: One-Way Ticket, 1845–1985 during a lecture Sunday afternoon at the Hoboken Historical Museum.

Ziegler-McPherson opened her lecture by saying she hadn't realized that it took many years for Hoboken to become integrated with the port structure of New York as a destination point for both goods and people. During its early decades, the city—then really only a village—served mostly as a sleepy getaway for New Yorkers.

“It took 30 to 40 years for the shipping industry to be established in Hoboken,” Ziegler-McPherson said.

Hoboken's population started to grow when shipping companies built docks and warehouses along the waterfront, notably the Hamburg America line in 1863. With this development came jobs, which attracted immigrants. The city's population jumped from 2,200 in 1850 to 20,000 in 1870 and 43,000 in 1890.

The first wave of immigrants to the city were mostly German and Irish. Ziegler-McPherson said she was also surprised to learn that the German and Irish communities were very diverse occupationally, with members working anything from manual labor to owning businesses and offering professional services.

“I did not expect it to be as diverse as it was,” Ziegler-McPherson said about the immigrant economy.

Ziegler-McPherson said she learned just how much the city was a German enclave at the turn of the 20th century. A quarter of the city's residents had German roots, earning Hoboken the nickname of “Little Bremen.” The German immigrants organized their own churches and social clubs, and the city's school system was bilingual with instruction in both German and English.

World War I, however, decimated Hoboken's German population. The federal government took control of the waterfront as millions of soldiers left for Europe via Hoboken. The government nationalized German shipping companies like the Hamburg America line and fired all the German employees. The military also closed nearly all of the city's bars, many of which were German owned. The city went from having 326 bars in 1917 to less than 60 a year later.

"The city suffered an overall economic decline during the war," Ziegler-McPherson said.

Many prominent Germans in the New York area were arrested and interred at Ellis Island under suspicion that they would commit espionage or sabotage, including the pastor of Hoboken's St. Matthew's Lutheran Church.

Hoboken never again felt like a German city after the war, and soon the largest immigrant group became Italian. Like the Germans before them the Italians also built their own churches, social clubs and businesses, many of which survive to the present day.

“I was surprised how quickly Italians came to dominate after World War I, and even up to today,” Ziegler-McPherson said.

Ziegler-McPherson also discussed the influx of Puerto Ricans to the city during the 1960s, mostly to find jobs in the city's factories. The Puerto Rican population doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 between 1960 and 1970, comprising 22 percent of the total city population in 1970.

Ziegler-McPherson rounded her presentation with anecdotes about various other immigrant groups. These such as those from Scandinavian and Slavic countries dissipated due to assimilation and a lack of successive waves from the mother country, but did establish their own identity for a time. For example several hundred Dutch immigrants had their own church, and Hoboken's modest Croatian community had its own newspaper.

Ziegler-McPherson, who earned her Ph.D. in American history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said she spent three years off and on writing her book, her second. She poured through census data, city directories, church directories, newspaper articles and various other sources.

Immigrants in Hoboken: One-Way Ticket, 1845–1985 is available for purchase off the History Press website.

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