Philadelphia — In a basement room filled with the sound of clicking computer keys, Stephanie Morris was fielding a telephone inquiry about a man's Irish ancestors who arrived here in the 1850s. ``We have ships' records from New York, but not Mobile,'' she told the caller from Connecticut. ``I'm sorry we can't help you.''
At the Balch Institute in Philadelphia, Ms. Morris is busier than usual these days on the phone. She is helping oversee a massive project that is bridging gaps in the history of immigrants to the United States.
The Center for Immigration Research, operated jointly by Temple University and the Balch Institute, is sifting through 11 tons of passenger lists of ships that docked at East Coast ports between 1820 and 1924.
Temple University students are entering the information into the computer to learn more about an estimated 35 million immigrants -- including occupation, place of residence, age, and family. The data will be available to families as well as economists and demographers who are already using the lists in their studies.
``For many, these records are the missing link to the Old World,'' said Dr. Mark Stolarik, president of the Balch Institute. ``They are possibly the most important immigration documents in the country.''
The manifests -- printed on cotton paper that has preserved remarkably well -- were obtained in 1978 from the National Archives in Maryland, which had planned to throw them away to make room for the Nixon papers. These ship records have all been microfilmed, but only half are indexed.
Genealogists are particularly interested in some as-yet unindexed ship manifests with names of about 12 million immigrants who arrived in New York. Among them was 13-year-old Annie Moore from Liverpool and southern Ireland. She was the first immigrant to pass through the Ellis Island receiving station on Jan. 2, 1892.
Since the project began seven years ago, four volunteers and 113 Temple students have entered more than 1 million names into the computer. The project may not be completed until well into the 21st century.
So far, the ship manifests are helping dispel the widely held belief that immigrants were ``all starving peasants,'' according to Dr. Stolarik.
``We're finding the famine dislocated people from all levels of society, except the very upper class,'' he said. In fact, the manifests show that immigrants labeled ``laborers'' by historians had specialized skills -- power loom weavers, bacon curers, even electrical engineers.
The list also indicates that immigrants were younger than previously thought. ``Many were coming in search of their fortune and without family,'' Stolarik said.
Clerks unfamiliar with foreign languages sometimes had trouble deciphering immigrants' names -- a situation that often led to odd results. Giaccovino became ``Jiaccovino'' at the hand of a French clerk, even though the Italian language has no ``J.'' English clerks turned the Houlihan family from Ireland into the ``Wholihans.''
The center receives about a dozen letters a week from people inquiring about their ancestors. Occasionally, the project's foreign language-speaking workers will find their own ancestors on ship lists.
``An Italian volunteer brought in his parish priest who found his Irish ancestors,'' Ms. Morris said. ``Everyone went through this mild euphoria.''
Eventually, the center hopes to maintain a computer listing of immigrant news. It may even create a computer service at Ellis Island, which is to reopen in 1992.