City Cast

Philly’s Own ‘Ellis Island,’ Pier 53

Brittany Valentine
Brittany Valentine
Posted on August 8
Blue historical marker that reads "since the 1870s, the station was an entry point and processing center for immigrants, primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. From here, newcomers moved into the city or other parts of the state. It was demolished in 1915."

Pier 53 was known as South Philly’s version of Ellis Island. (Washingtonavenuepier/Instagram)

Philly was once home to the third most important immigration port in the country. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, more than a million people, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, entered the U.S. at Pier 53 on the Delaware River, which is now known as Washington Avenue Pier.

The immigration station began operations in 1873. After immigrants completed a health inspection at Lazaretto Station, they would head to Pier 53 to pass through customs and board trains to leave the city.

Those who couldn’t afford to leave settled down near the waterfront. Italian immigrants settled around Ninth Street, which later became known as the Italian Market.

The station received an average of 50,000 passengers a year until it was demolished in 1915. Washington Avenue Pier is now a public park with wetlands, meadows, elevated boardwalks, and gathering spaces.

Visitors can also climb a 55-foot spiral staircase called “Land Buoy.” The art installation emits a soft blue light, commemorating those who started new lives at Pier 53.

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