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Pacific Coast Port of Entry for Immigrants Puts History on Display

Perhaps the best-known port of entry for millions of immigrants to America is Ellis Island, now a museum, welcoming tourists instead. But not all immigrants arrived in New York. Hundreds of thousands came in through ports on the West Coast. The state of California is restoring an immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. In Washington State, the U.S. Quarantine Station on the Columbia River is in private hands, but also has a small museum. The family owners say their nearly forgotten slice of immigration history can shed light on our current immigration debate.

Back in 1950, Tom Bell was fresh out of the Navy, back home in Portland, Oregon, and looking to buy an old Army jeep. So he got on the government surplus mailing list. "About six months later, I got a little brochure on this spot, the old United States Quarantine Station, which had approximately [2 hectares] of dry land and [3 hectares] of tidelands, and the buildings included."

Bell told his dad about it, and the family bid on it at auction. With a winning bid of $5,000, they bought the equivalent of Ellis Island on the Columbia River for a song.

The Bells turned the property into a salmon fishing camp and then a family compound. Tom's sister, Nancy Bell Anderson, says they didn't fully realize the significance of what they owned until three to four decades later. "The more I got into it, the more fun I had," she says about researching the property's history. "It's like a detective story."

It's a story that goes back to the 1890's. That's when the government made Astoria, Oregon, 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's Angel Island and Port Townsend, Washington. Doctors from the Public Health Service inspected all arrivals for signs of contagious diseases, disability, insanity or criminality. Those in ill health were sent to the Quarantine Station on the Washington side of the river.

It was the same process as at Ellis Island in New York harbor, but without the inspiring statue of Lady Liberty. Those who disembarked on the Columbia River were greeted by a collection of modest weathered wooden halls and barracks. "My mother had done the research and found out that these were called lazarettos," Anderson says. "They're specialized quarantine hospitals. Translated [from Italian], that means pesthouse. That was one way we knew to control disease, was to isolate people." The Bells decided they have a museum in the pesthouse, and today, the Knappton Cove Heritage Center and Quarantine Hospital Museum is open to the public on summer Saturdays.

Visitors like the Hendricksons poke around the creaky building, looking at historic pictures, artifacts and frightful medical tools. "This is a link to our past," Mary Hendrickson explains as she flips carefully through one of the ship's logs on display. "If it isn't preserved, our young people won't know."

Hugh Hendrickson is on the trail of a relative who once worked at the Knappton Cove station. "My stepfather's sister's husband." "Kinda far removed!" his wife chimes in with a laugh.

"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, and Mary Hendrickson sighs, "It's a shame that we've never been here before."

Nancy Anderson hopes to see the day when the little museum can replicate the genealogical trove that New York Harbor's Ellis Island offers. Anderson knows which vessels called at this Western port of entry, but not the names of the roughly 100,000 passengers.

"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. A local foundation has agreed to pay to replace the pesthouse roof.

Nancy Anderson says the Knappton Cove Quarantine Station is a visible symbol that the nation has "always struggled with immigration." Judging from the current debate, she says Americans are slow to learn lessons from that history. "We seem to have this fear of one new group coming in and, 'oh boy, they're going to take over.'" Looking at what's happened in the past, she says, that isn't the case. "We assimilate. We mix together. Really in the long haul, it's okay," she concludes. "We're basically humans."