Ellis Island: Up and running and as fascinating as ever
Ellis Island, the former federal immigration processing center and one of the nation’s most popular and significant historic sites, is up and running again on a limited basis following Hurricane Sandy.
The October 2012 storm may have flooded buildings and pummeled the 27.5-acre island in New York Harbor, but my recent visit proved that the place is still as fascinating as ever.
The National Park Service, which administers the site, is continuing repairs, but opened the island after a year of restoration. A million artifacts still remain in storage in Maryland, awaiting an expected Spring 2014 reopening of several exhibits and the third floor of the main building.
The art deco Ferry Building, hard hit by the storm, is temporarily shuttered, but there’s still plenty to see as visitors amble along paths and the cavernous halls of the main building, reliving the journey of some 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954. And donations of new artifacts keep pouring in with 3,695 items received and stored off site over the past year, say officials.
My visit started when I disembarked from the ferry alongside the imposing brick and limestone French Renaissance-style main building, just as the third and steerage class immigrants had when they were ferried from ships anchored in the harbor.
I climbed the building’s steps to enter an airy, high- ceilinged hall, modeled after a train station with its design for handling masses of people. This was the baggage room where travelers dropped their luggage, then filed up the stairway leading to the Registry Room (Great Hall) to pass inspection. Little did these hopeful immigrants know that doctors were eyeing them as they climbed the steps, screening them for breathing or walking difficulties and other signs of illness.
Today, the Great Hall remains a graceful, massive space with its sweeping arched windows, impressive vaulted, fishbone-patterned ceiling, and gleaming terra cotta floor. The confused and noisy masses are gone, as are the row upon row of benches where they waited for inspectors to call their name. But as I sat on one of the eight remaining original benches, it was easy to imagine the chaos and fear immigrants felt as inspectors grilled them with up to 31 questions about their lives, origins, belongings and intentions.
“The average immigrant only spent five hours on the island,” explained Matthew Funk, a volunteer who led the 45-minute National Park Ranger tour through the baggage room and nearby grounds. “Out of 12 million immigrants, 20 percent would be pulled out of line for various reasons. Only one percent was sent back for medical reasons and one percent for legal reasons.”
Some 5,000 immigrants were processed in a day with a record 11,747 on April 17, 1907. Detainees were housed in dormitories and some 30 buildings across the ferry basin. The area, unrestored today, included hospitals, psychiatric and contagious disease wards, a morgue, labs and other lodging.
I learned more about the island’s history during a moving half-hour film that brought the Ellis Island story to life as immigrants recounted their experiences. And taking the self-guided audio tour through the multi-media exhibit on pre-Ellis Island immigration gave me an appreciation for the complexities of settling into a new land.
The most personal part of my visit, though, was a walk around the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. It drove home just how many people passed through the island. Some 40 percent of Americans can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island and many of their names are recorded on the wall, including my Italian dad. (Names can be listed with a donation to Ellis Island.) In fact, the Italians were the largest ethnic group processed on the island, numbering 2.5 million, and the Russians, at 2 million immigrants, were second, said Park Ranger Supervisor Andrea Boney.
Our family was among the third of those coming through what became known as “the island of hope, the island of tears” to remain in the New York area, the rest fanning across the country.
If you’re curious about your own connection to this historic landmark, you can go to www.ellisisland.org to search records for free and learn about the immigrant journey. Or, during your visit, go to the American Family Immigration History Center on the first floor of the main building to check the database for relatives and friends, or go to www.wallofhonor.org to register for the wall.
The only way to reach Ellis Island is by taking the ferry operated by Statue Cruises from Battery Park in lower Manhattan or Liberty State Park in New Jersey. The ride offers stunning views of the Manhattan and New Jersey skylines, and also includes a stop on Liberty Island for an up-close experience with the Statue of Liberty (although passengers may choose to visit only one island).
Statue Cruises is included in New York CityPASS. Please note that New York CityPASS admission does NOT include access to the monument or crown of the Statue of Liberty unless specifically requested and purchased directly through the Statue Cruises call center at 1-877-523-9849. For more information on how to access the monument and/or crown, please read this blog post.