The Boats that Came Over

Providence once 'Ellis Island' to Southern New England

Posted 1/22/14

When Pawtucket native William Jennings decided he wanted to study maritime history, he took advantage of the fact that the Munson Institute is located just over the border in Mystic, Conn. Making it …

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The Boats that Came Over

Providence once 'Ellis Island' to Southern New England


When Pawtucket native William Jennings decided he wanted to study maritime history, he took advantage of the fact that the Munson Institute is located just over the border in Mystic, Conn. Making it even more convenient was that the Fabre Line of steamships was one of the most frequently used routes for immigrants to come to Providence. The result of Jennings' studies was a dissertation on the Fabre Line and immigration that earned him an "A" from Dr. John Kemble of the Munson Institute and Pomona College in California.

"The idea of a book remained dormant for many years, but when downtown Providence was being considered for redevelopment as a port and there were plans to revive the State Pier, we went over the work and revised it for a book," said Jennings, who closely collaborated with historian Patrick Conley on the book. "We both had a lot of background on the subject so we had a blend of his research and my research, so we really became co-authors of the book."

The book finally came out late last year and anyone who wants to know more about Providence history and the immigrant experience in Rhode Island will find it a real treat.

"We talked with a lot of people over the years about the Fabre Line, especially people who worked in customs or immigration, who had wonderful stories," said Jennings.

Jennings found a wealth of lore among the memories of Thomas F. Farrelly and James F. O'Neil, former employees of the U.S. Customs Service who knew firsthand some of the characters and stories that enliven the history.

"Like the stowaway, Sousa," said Jennings.

"Among the stories of stowaways is one about Louis Xavier Sousa," wrote Jennings, "a Portuguese-American from Providence who entered a cabin on the Sonaia ... He went into the cabin, he later said, for a little shuteye. Sousa made his presence known after two days at sea, and for the next six weeks, he worked his passage in the ship's galley."

Sousa got to see a little of the Azores and Italy through a porthole, according to Jennings, and was facing jail when he finally got back to Providence. The captain wanted to make an example of him to deter other people from taking some shuteye in the staterooms, which he believed was a made-up story from Sousa. In any event, Providence officials thought Sousa paid his way with his labor and prevented the captain from detaining him even longer as extra help on board.

Another story involved the young son of Rockwell Kent, the 20th century American artist and illustrator, who was supposed to get off in New York to be met by his father in Brooklyn. The 13-year-old boy was put off in Providence and his father waited in vain until the mistake was discovered and the Red Cross gave Rockwell Kent Jr. rail fare to New York and $1 to spend. Rockwell Kent Jr. spent the night in a working boys' dormitory in New York before his aunt in Tarrytown took him in. Rockwell Kent Sr. sued the Fabre Line and one of its ships was forced to post a $50,000 bond before it was allowed to leave New York until the suit was settled. Unfortunately, details of the suit and its eventual settlement are not included in the book. The younger Kent, who was a good, if not passionate, artist himself, chose a career outside of art and ended life as the owner of a chemical laboratory in Massachusetts, where he died in 1986.

There are equally interesting stories of smugglers who were operating on a scale much slighter than the sort of big business of today's drug cartels.

"A Portuguese passenger named Joao Rodrigues," according to the book, on whom customs officials found "nine bottles of cocaine and two bottles of laudanum in a gallon can mixed with Portuguese marmalade; a quart bottle of rum in a hollowed out spool of yarn ... agents found a small fortune in beautiful Madeira laces and lingerie as well as several cans of olive oil, with a bottle of liquor hidden inside each can."

Restrictive immigration laws that were introduced in the 1920s drastically reduced the number of immigrants that came directly to Providence, which made the Port of Providence much less attractive to Fabre, since passenger service was the mainstay of the line. More than 84,000 people had come through the Port of Providence between 1911 and 1934. But the quotas imposed on certain ethnic groups after World War I pretty much doomed the line's profitability, but before that, the Fabre Line called on many countries on the shores of the Mediterranean and Lebanese, Armenian and Jews joined the flow. Most of the churches and ethnic organizations had organized welcoming efforts for immigrants to help them settle in. People who came before them provided loans, homes and jobs and the immigrants found Providence to be as congenial as any other city as a destination.

While most people claim Ellis Island as their family's first landfall in the United States, for generations of Italian, Portuguese and other immigrants, the Port of Providence was called "the Southern Gateway for New England."

There was Italian and Portuguese immigration to Rhode Island before the Fabre Line came along, but people usually came here from Boston or New York. When the Italians settled on Federal Hill or in the Knightsville section of Cranston, those who followed them usually came through another port, but when Fabre started service to Providence, it was only logical that people would come to Rhode Island directly.

"In an era when immigration was at its peak, the Fabre Line offered the only transatlantic route to southern New England. One of its most important ports was in Providence, Rhode Island. Nearly eighty-four thousand immigrants were admitted to the country between the years 1911 and 1934," according to the promotional material for the book. "Almost one in nine of these individuals elected to settle in Rhode Island after landing in Providence, amounting to around 11,000 new residents. Most of these immigrants were from Portugal and Italy, and the Fabre Line kept up a brisk and successful business. However, both the line and the families hoping for a new life faced major obstacles in the form of World War I, the immigration restriction laws of the 1920s, and the Great Depression."

As comprehensive as this account of the Fabre Line is, most readers will enjoy it for the insight it provides into the uprooting task of moving a family from the old world to a new world of opportunity. It is a story that will enlighten and entertain people other than history buffs. There is a quiet but palpable drama to all the facts gathered here. Put together as they are, they offer an accurate glimpse into the America that drew our parents here.


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