Gateway to a New World: The History of Ellis Island

Ellis Island, a small piece of land in New York Harbor, holds a monumental place in American history. From 1892 to 1954, it served as the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to the United States, embodying the hopes, dreams, and fears of those seeking a new life in a new world. This Island symbolizes the nation’s complex history of immigration, reflecting both the struggles and triumphs of those who passed through its doors.

This article explores the rich tapestry of Ellis Island’s history, offering a glimpse into the experiences of the millions who arrived on its shores, eager to become part of the American narrative.

The Beginnings of Ellis Island

The three-acre Island in Upper New York Bay and in the stream of the Hudson River was called Oyster Island by the Dutch in the 1620s and Gibbet Island after pirates were hung there in the 1760s. The Island wasn’t officially called Ellis Island until 1861 when Fort Gibson was dismantled. It was then renamed for Samuel Ellis who owned it in 1785, and whose estate sold it to the State of New York in 1808.

The State turned the property over to the federal government for use was as a fort to defend the harbor during the War of 1812. In the 1840s, it was the proposed site for housing Irish immigrants on arrival, but the Island’s service as an immigration center would wait 50 years.

The Golden Door

The federal immigration center on Ellis Island opened for business on January 1, 1892. The first wooden structure that housed the processing center burned in 1897. Boring & Tilton designed a brick and limestone French Renaissance replacement that was to service as many as a half-million immigrants a year. Immigration soon reached a million immigrants a year and stayed at that level between 1900 and 1914. In response, the federal government used a landfill to enlarge the Island from three acres to 27 acres. New wings and a third story were added to the main building, which was supplemented over time by 33 other structures.

Castle Clinton, the former fort that predated Ellis Island as the central immigrant arrival center, was located on Manhattan at the Battery. In 1882, 87 percent of immigrants processed through Castle Clinton were Northern or Western Europeans. By 1907, over 80 percent were from Southern and Eastern Europe. From 1892 to 1954, more than 16 million Southern and Eastern European immigrants, or 71% of all immigrants, entered the United States through the federal immigration station on Ellis Island and two connecting islands in New York Harbor.

A revolution in transportation spurred the great wave of immigration that originated in industrial, agricultural, and political changes in Europe. In 1856, almost 100 percent of American immigrants came on sailing ships. By 1873, almost the same percentage came from steamships specifically built for passengers. Competition was fierce among steamship lines for the immigrant transport business. Some lines had thousands of ticket agents combing Europe for likely candidates for emigration, and more than half of American immigrants who traveled by 1901 were prepaid by relatives in America.

Some 40 percent of all U.S. citizens today can trace their family’s American roots to Ellis Island. In the years 1900-1924, on some days, more than 10,000 people might pass through the Registry Room meeting or not meeting the stringent and complicated rules for admission to America. About 80% of the cases were cleared within eight hours. A quarter of a million immigrants never made it past Ellis Island.

However, before ever reaching Ellis Island, the immigrant ships were stopped in the Narrows off Staten Island at the U.S. Coast Guard Quarantine Station. Quarantine officers boarded the ships to check for disease, particularly signs of epidemic disease. If a ship passed this first inspection, its first- and second-class passengers were then examined and, if approved, released upon docking.

The steerage class passengers were transported to the Ellis Island immigration center for inspection. This was no easy ride, though. The barges were freezing cold in winter and stifling in summer. They lacked toilet facilities and lifesaving equipment. If conditions warranted, the immigrants could be kept waiting for days on these inadequate barges before being released on Ellis Island.

Once on the Island, arrivals faced a line inspection, where Public Health Service physicians stood at the top of the stairs, eying the physical appearance of the immigrants. If a person looked as if he or she had an eye infection, a notice of a large chalked “E” was marked on the shoulder or lapel. For lameness, “L” and for mental disorder, “X.” Marked immigrants were removed from the line and sent for special examinations. Some were hospitalized. In the case of mental problems, simple arithmetic or logic tests determined whether somebody would be passed on or returned to the country of embarkation. About 20% of those immigrants marked with an “X” were rejected.

Once the medical examination was over, the immigrant proceeded to the Registry Room for legal evaluation, which established social, moral, and economic fitness. Immigrants had to show their money to inspectors to prove they were unlikely to become public charges. Women and children were detained for days or weeks until their safety upon leaving the Island could be assured. Required proof included telegrams and letters or prepaid transportation from a waiting relative. Single women could not leave with a male who was not a family member, and weddings were performed on the spot.

Successful candidates for immigration were ferried across from Ellis Island to the Barge Office, a beautiful Venetian Renaissance structure that once stood at the Battery, or to other points in New Jersey. Two-thirds of immigrants boarded cross-country railroad lines on their way to new lives in the heartland.

Closing Doors and Legacy

In 1924, mass immigration law was tailored by Congress, which changed the screening process location from Ellis Island to the country of origin. Ellis Island was thereafter used to detain deportees and as an enemy alien detention center in World War II. With its diminished role, the Immigration and Naturalization Services moved to Manhattan in 1954, making Ellis Island surplus property.

President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the Island a national monument in 1965 and was to have been managed by the National Parks Service in conjunction with the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, Congress did not provide the funds to restore and preserve the buildings, and they were allowed to deteriorate. A private foundation was formed in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan to fund the restoration of both the Ellis Island buildings and the Statue of Liberty.

The main building has since been restored to appear as it did in 1918, and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in 1990. The museum’s centerpiece is the Registry Room, a Beaux-Arts classic resembling a grand railroad station. It has 2,000 feet of red Ludowici tile flooring, a two-story barrel-vaulted ceiling tiled in Guastavino, a perimeter balcony, and huge arched clerestory windows.

The refurbishment, costing $156 million over eight years, can be compared to the restoration of Versailles. The museum receives twice as many visitors today as it did immigrants at the turn of the century. The American Immigrant Wall of Honor lists over a half-million names of immigrants who were processed through Ellis Island. Exhibits in 30 separate galleries trace the history of both Ellis Island and American immigration. The museum’s holdings are built on thousands of donations by descendants of family heirlooms and on the records and artifacts of the government facility. There is an Oral History Studio, a Children’s Visitor Center, and the Immigrant’s Living Theater.

The original plaster ceiling of the Registry Room had been damaged in 1916 by explosions set off by German saboteurs on a munitions barge at Black Tom Wharf in New Jersey. In 1917, a Spanish immigrant and master tiler named Rafael Guastavino created the self-supporting system of 28 832 interlocking terracotta tiles that graces the ceiling today. When it was inspected for the 1980s restoration, only 17 of the 28 832 Guastavino tiles needed replacing.

During the restoration, workers discovered graffiti that had been painted over several layers of paint. At the original plaster level, scratched initials, names, dates, poems, religious symbols, and cartoons were uncovered, along with notes made in pencil or with the blue chalk used by the medical inspectors.

In Italian, one message read: “Damned is the day I left my homeland,” showing the pain and pathos that came along the way with starting a new life in a new country.

Reflections on Ellis Island

The history of Ellis Island is a powerful chapter in the story of America. It reminds us of the nation’s foundational values of freedom, opportunity, and the belief in a better life for all. The stories of those who passed through Ellis Island speak to the enduring spirit of hope and the universal desire for a place to call home.

In exploring Ellis Island’s history, we are reminded of the importance of empathy and compassion in the face of the struggles faced by immigrants past and present. The Island’s legacy challenges us to consider the ongoing debates about immigration policy and the ways in which we welcome those seeking refuge and opportunity in our own time.

Ellis Island’s history is not just about the past; it is a narrative that continues to resonate in the present, shaping our understanding of what it means to be American. In remembering the journeys of those who came before us, we honor their contributions to the fabric of American society and the ongoing story of a nation built on diversity, resilience, and the pursuit of the American dream.

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