There is something quite magical, even on a cold and snowy day, about sailing the narrow strip of water past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island, with Manhattan in all its glory to the right. It must have been an incredibly exciting, emotional sight for the more than twelve million immigrants who arrived in New York City between 1892 and 1954. However, their journey wasn’t quite over – they still had to pass through immigration which, in those days, meant stopping at nearby Ellis Island.
Ellis Island, named for its eighteenth century owner, Samuel Ellis, was for 62 years the entry point for migrants coming across the Atlantic to the United States. After voyages that could, in some cases, take months, each weary traveller had to carry their possessions through the echoing halls, be examined and questioned and sorted before being allowed access to the tantalisingly close mainland. It must have been heartbreaking for those who had travelled all that distance, leaving all they loved behind, to be turned away almost at the gates, so to speak, the glittering city so close by denying them entry for whatever reason they deemed fair. Yet for all that, Ellis Island was not the haunted place I imagined it to be before I visited – rather, the story there seems to be one of success, of the countless migrants who chose to chase the American dream, many of them finding success and prosperity enough to send for their extended families.
The current buildings on Ellis Island were opened in 1900, after a fire destroyed the original timber buildings in 1897, only five years after they’d been built. Immigration records dating back to 1855 were also lost in the fire, and for several years, while the new buildings were being constructed, the Barge Office at nearby Battery Park was used as the processing station for new arrivals. Once the new buildings were in place, immigrants once again had to stop at the island before being allowed entry to the United States. New arrivals were asked 29 questions by officials, including their name, occupation, and how much money they had, as they were expected to have enough to support themselves. Anyone with visible illnesses or poor health was sent home or held in the nearby hospital, even if the rest of their family had been approved to enter the United States.
In the vaulted Great Hall, migrants were checked for a variety of conditions (including one harrowing check which involved scraping the eyeball with a metal hook!), then sorted into sections to be sent their separate ways. On the day we visited, the hall was almost deserted – it was hard to imagine how noisy it must have been when full, or how many different languages once echoed beneath its lofty ceiling.
In some ways, the Hall itself was a symbol of the American dream. Our guide told us that the beautiful tiles lining the ceiling and floors were made by a family who had passed through the hall themselves only a few years earlier, bringing their expertise in tilemaking from the old world to the new, and finding such success that their products were soon in demand across the country, making them millionaires.
Across the water from the arrivals hall are the hospital and quarantine buildings, which have not yet been restored. It is possible to tour them, though, arranged through prior booking and while wearing a hard hat. We chose not to do so, instead following our guide out to where a curving wall of steel bore the names of all those recorded as having passed through the island to a new life in America.
The city gleamed in the distance, Liberty holding her torch to guide weary travellers with her promise of freedom and justice for all. It was an extraordinary place, with stories enough to fill several libraries, I would imagine. I’m glad I got to see it.
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