1918 was a year of extremes in Chicago. It began with a blizzard that dropped a still-record snowfall of 42.5 inches over 22 days, as recorded by The Old Farmers’ Almanac. In September, the Chicago Cubs played in the World Series at 2-year-old Wrigley Field — but lost to the Boston Red Sox. Soon afterward, an influenza epidemic paralyzed the city for nearly two months, with more than 38,000 cases of influenza and 13,000 cases of pneumonia reported from mid-September to mid-November, according to the Influenza Encyclopedia.
There probably was still snow on the ground when Mariasia Naginsky and her daughters arrived in early 1918, en route from Seattle to New York. A city of 2.7 million people, Chicago had established itself as the nation’s transportation hub, providing a connection from the East to newly settled areas in the West. There were six major rail depots at the time the family passed through on the final leg of their journey to America.
Traveling on the Great Northern, Northern Pacific or Milwaukee Road railroads, they would have arrived at the Union Depot station. Built in 1881, the station was a long, narrow brick building stretching north-south. It did not have some of the elaborate architectural details or features that had become commonplace in the more modern rail stations of the 20th century. In fact, construction already was under way on a replacement facility, the present-day Union Station, to accommodate the growing rail traffic. Exiting the station, a long awning stretched across the front facing Canal Street, between W. Adams and W. Madison streets, just outside the city’s Loop business district.
If the Naginskys were aboard a Union Pacific train, the North Western Station would have been their terminus. Although just a few blocks from Union Depot, the station represented a new era in train travel. Opened in 1911, it was the city’s largest train station when they would have passed through. Mother and daughters would have been greeted by a three-story, 202- by 117-foot main waiting room with marble walls trimmed in bronze. They may have caught a glimpse of the dining room or the women’s rooms with writing desks and hairdressing services. Some of the other features of the station included smoking rooms for men, a barber shop and even hospital rooms, according to a history of the Chicago and North Western line. Exiting the granite building on a site bounded by Madison, Lake, Clinton and Canal streets, six distinct columns marked the grand entrance, as described by the Encyclopedia of Chicago History.
Whether they arrived at Union Depot or North Western Station, it’s likely there was community support awaiting them. Chicago was one of the centers of the settlement house movement, which had begun in Great Britain in 1884 in response to growing industrialization. The most well-known settlement house in the U.S., Hull House, was established in Chicago in 1888 by Jane Addams Hull and Ellen Gates Starr to help assimilate immigrants and ease the effects of poverty by providing much-needed social services in an industrial area on the near West Side of Chicago.
About four blocks away from Hull House, a Hebrew sheltering home was established in 1916 in anticipation of the expected wave of refugees fleeing Russia. As described in the Feb. 10, 1916, issue of the Jewish Courier newspaper:
Chicago is opening up a first class Hebrew immigrant shelter home. This institution was recently organized and is being financed by the Federated Orthodox Jewish Charities, which expects to donate about $4,000 annually to its upkeep. The Federation realized that something must be done in the way of providing a home or homes for the many immigrants who come here from Russia stranded.
Several hundred refugees who escaped the Russian fire, at present in Japan, will arrive in Seattle in a few days, and a great number of them who will come from there to Chicago will be out on the street if shelter is not provided for them. These immigrants are some of the best children of our Jewish nation. We must by all means provide homes and food for them when they arrive. This home for immigrants is to be located in the large building of the Jewish Aid Society, 1336 S. Morgan Street. This society has with great pride provided the space for the new home and the Federation donated $2,500 to this worthy cause.
Just a couple days later, the Reform Advocate newspaper also reported on the opening of the new home:
The Federated Orthodox Jewish Charities of Chicago has taken the initiative to create and support the Hebrew Immigrant and Sheltering Home. It will be the aim of the H. I. and S. H. to provide recent immigrants with temporary shelter, food, clothing, and other aid deemed necessary to prevent them from becoming public charges.
The present time is an opportune one for launching this organization as the wave of immigration is at low tide and will afford the time to gradually develop the scope of the Sheltering Home.
The F. O. J. C. has given its approval to the Sheltering Home and accepted it into the fold of its affiliated institutions. It has been voted a budget of $4,000 a year. The Jewish Aid Society has offered the Sheltering Home the use of its large building at 1336 S. Morgan Street, rent free, which has been gratefully accepted. An appropriation of $1,500 to remodel the building and $1,000 to furnish it has been made by the Federated Charities.
In the ensuing years, the home — whose management shifted in about 1918 to a newly established Chicago branch of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society — would serve scores of new arrivals, likely Mariasia and her daughters among them. In a letter sent to the Society’s national headquarters in 1919 requesting additional funding, branch President Adolph Copeland would document not only the work of the sheltering home but also the branch’s many other activities on behalf of immigrants. According to the Federated Orthodox Jewish Charities:
… they were appealed to for help on all sides, and no cry for help went unheeded. He mentioned the Shelter maintained by the Society, describing it as modern and well-equipped where transient and immigrant poor are fed and lodged under thoroughly sanitary conditions. He described the manifold services rendered by the Society, meeting immigrants at the depots and directing them to their destinations, transmitting money abroad without charge to needy relatives. …
Mr. Copeland concluded his letter with an appeal asking the F. O. J. C. to take up with the A. J. C. the matter of setting aside for the work of the Society the sum of $35,000. He asked the board to remember that although the actual immigration is less than it used to be and at present (1919) smaller than it ever has been in the history of the country, still the immigration problem is more serious than it ever has been and the Society is the only body that is coping with the tremendous problem.
It’s unclear how long the Naginskys stayed in Chicago in what was likely late winter of 1918. It’s probable they had to at least wait for the departure of their train bound for New York, not only because there were fewer travel options during the war (at the same time that passenger traffic was growing) but also because they may have needed to have money wired to them to pay for the final leg of their trip. We know they already were being assisted by the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society in Seattle so it’s likely there was communication with the Chicago branch to meet them at the station and transport them to the shelter home at 1336 S. Morgan Street for however long they needed to stay.
While family members recounted very little about their travels, they did talk about one thing: a newspaper article written about their journey to America while they were in Chicago. That fabled article remains the holy grail of our research, holding the promise of uncovering details that have been lost to time.