From the moment its “golden doors” swung open in 1892, Ellis Island in New York Harbor played a central role in the American immigration experience. Comedian Bob Hope became an American there. So did actor Cary Grant, composer Irving Berlin, and 12 million others. The island’s federal immigration station served as the main portal into the United States during the country’s busiest years of immigration, and for three decades the words “Ellis Island” and “immigration” were inextricably linked. Now, exactly 120 years later, almost half of all Americans can trace their heritage back to at least one person who passed through Ellis Island. While it no longer operates as an immigration station, the facility remains an important landmark—often dubbed “the Plymouth Rock of its day”—and still draws millions of visitors annually, many of whom arrive hoping to better understand their own family histories.
(SEE ELLIS ISLAND TIMELINE)
Before it transformed into a busy immigration station in the 1890s, Ellis Island had a diverse history. A small land mass located just off the New Jersey coast, the island formed from rising seas some 1,500 years ago. Native Americans called it “Kioshk” (meaning Gull Island) and used it to hunt, fish, and gather oysters. American colonists eventually did the same, referring to it as Oyster Island and taking day trips there to dig for oysters and admire the view of New York’s bustling harbor.
Samuel Ellis became the island’s private owner (and eventual namesake) in the 1780s, and in 1808, as America readied for war with Great Britain, the state of New York purchased the island and gave ownership to the federal government. A fort and other fortifications were constructed, but no military action ever occurred there. Instead, after the war, the island became a munitions dump and depository for surplus gunpowder. Many New Jersey and New York residents worried about the possibility of a huge powder explosion, and after their repeated complaints and great urging, Congress adopted legislation in 1890 to remove the excess munitions from Ellis Island. The same bill also allocated $75,000 to “improve Ellis Island for immigration purposes.”
By that time the number of immigrants seeking entry to America had begun to swell, beginning the largest period of mass migrations in history. Until then, individual states had been charged with regulating immigration into the United States, and from 1855 to 1890, Castle Garden in the Battery served as New York’s immigration station. But as the number of immigrants continued to balloon, some Americans expressed concerns about the “desirability” of their new countrymen. They urged the government to reconsider its open-door policies.
Under the Immigration Act of 1891, the federal government took control of who was entering the country. Officials called for the construction of a new federally operated immigration station on Ellis Island, and on Jan. 1, 1892, the new Georgia-pine facility opened its doors, marking a new era of immigration. (The building burned down just five years later, only to be quickly rebuilt of fireproof brick and limestone.)
On the morning of Jan. 1, 1892, a rosy-cheeked Irish girl celebrated her 15th birthday by making history. Fresh off a 12-day boat ride across the Atlantic Ocean, Annie Moore became the first immigrant to set foot on Ellis Island and pass through its new immigration center. She and her two younger brothers had made the long trip in steerage on board the SS Nevada steamship to join their parents, who had already immigrated to New York. According to a Jan. 2, 1892, article in The New York Times: “When the little voyager had been registered [Ellis Island Commissioner] Col. Weber presented her with a ten-dollar gold piece and made a short address of congratulation and welcome. It was the first United States coin [Moore] had ever seen and the largest sum of money she had ever possessed. She says she will never part with it, but will always keep it as a pleasant memento of the occasion.”
(CLICK TO SEE A VIDEO SIMULATING A LANDING AT ELLIS ISLAND)
Sunny as the picture appears, for Moore and the 12 million other immigrants who became American citizens on Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, the arrival and inspection processes were often governed by fear, chaos, and confusion. As first- and second-class cabin passengers breezed through customs at the Hudson River piers and set off to begin their new lives, steerage passengers—working-class immigrants who were often in poor health—were hustled onto ferries at the port and whisked down the Hudson straight to Ellis Island for processing. An English immigrant once said of the shuffle: “We were put on a barge, jammed in so tight that I couldn’t turn ’round, there were so many of us, you see, and the stench was terrible.”
Before their voyages to the United States, would-be immigrants submitted their information to the ships’ manifest logs. The paperwork included 29 questions meant to weed out those who might become “burdens” after they arrived in America. Once on the island, the inspection process took three to five hours, and included both legal and medical examinations. The latter began almost immediately. Doctors were stationed atop the stairwells to observe arriving immigrants for any obvious signs of medical issues, and inside the registry room, other physicians quickly checked new arrivals for more than 60 diseases and disabilities that would disqualify them from entering the country. These so-called “six-second physicals” included a painful check for trachoma—a contagious eye condition—in which the examiner used a buttonhook to turn an immigrant’s eyelid inside out.
Following their medical examinations, immigrants were grouped in the main building’s registry room, where they waited to present their papers and answer inspectors’ questions about age, marital status, financial situation, and employment prospects in an effort to cross-examine the information they’d provided at embarkation. It was a large room, crowded and noisy. As a Russian Jewish immigrant later recalled: “To me, it was like the House of Babel. Because there were so many languages and so many people and everybody huddled together. And it was so full of fear.”
While most passengers passed through the inspections and were set free to begin their new lives in America, the process wasn’t as smooth for some. About 20 percent of immigrants were detained on Ellis Island for days or weeks before being allowed to enter the country. Many of those detainments were due to illness, in which case the immigrant was admitted to the cramped Ellis Island hospital for observation and treatment. Immigrants who had no money or seemed “likely to become a public charge” were required to appear before a Board of Special Inquiry to plead their cases.
Then there was the worst-case scenario: Never seeing more of America than Ellis Island. Two percent of arriving immigrants were barred from entering the United States—which amounted to about 250,000 people during the peak years of immigration. For most travelers, this turn of events resulted in major distress—many had sold everything they owned to pay for their journeys to the United States and would thus be returning to their homelands worse off than before they left.
In 1907, the peak year for immigration, Ellis Island processed approximately 1.25 million new Americans. Masons and carpenters raced to enlarge the existing facilities and to build new ones, unaware that only a few short years later, as the country entered World War I, immigration numbers would plummet.
As the First World War raged in Europe, instead of welcoming new countrymen, the United States brought suspected enemy aliens to Ellis Island under custody. Unable to admit or deport anyone, the island soon filled up with these immigrants-in-limbo, and when the United States entered the war in 1917, still more aliens, immigrants, and detainees were sent there. More than 1,800 merchant seamen taken from German ships at various U.S. ports were also housed in a temporary detention center on Ellis Island, joined by alleged spies, anarchists, radicals, and aliens accused of sympathizing with the enemy. By the end of the war, most of them had been shipped to detention camps across the country, but during the “Red Scare” that followed, hundreds of suspected “alien radicals” were again interned on the island and later deported.
Although Ellis Island reopened as an immigration station in 1920—processing 225,206 people that year—it soon became obvious that the facility’s days as a portal into America were dwindling. For the previous two decades, “restrictionists” had been pushing for more stringent immigration laws. In the midst of World War I, they gained modest ground when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, prohibiting 33 categories of “undesirables” (including illiterates) from entering the country. When that still didn’t quell the tide of immigration, another law was added: The First Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration to 350,000 admissions a year. The National Origins Act followed in 1924, lowering the immigration cap to 150,000 admissions annually and allowing prospective immigrants to apply for visas in their countries of origin, rendering Ellis Island’s already-sparse immigration duties obsolete.
Over the next few decades, save for a brief guest spot in World War II, the island was used primarily to detain immigrants with paperwork issues and to deport illegal aliens. To recoup the expense of maintaining the buildings, the Immigration and Naturalization Service moved its New York operations from Ellis Island to Manhattan, and in 1954 the Justice Department announced it would close all seaport detention centers, including Ellis Island. By then, only one detainee remained on the island—a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen who had overstayed his shore leave. He was released in November 1954, and Ellis Island’s once-“golden” doors officially swung shut.
The island’s abandoned buildings deteriorated quickly. In the decade after it closed, items that signified the immigration station’s former importance became covered in dust. Roofs leaked. Scavengers snatched up copper and fans and typewriters. It was a lonely time for the once-bustling Ellis Island.
Then, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that made Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. From 1976 to 1984, the island reopened to the public on a limited basis, and in 1984, a $160 million historic renovation project—the largest in U.S. history—began. The main building was carefully cleaned up. Some parts were restored to look as they did during the peak immigration years, and other areas were transformed into exhibition galleries and theaters.
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to the public on Sept. 10, 1990, offering new generations a glimpse into the immigrant experience through photographs, mementos, documents, and oral histories. Today, the museum draws almost 2 million visitors annually, and four other buildings on the island have been restored.
In 2001, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation launched the American Family Immigration History Center, allowing visitors to scour more than 25 million Port of New York passenger arrival records and 900 ship photographs for markers of their own family histories. For those who can’t make the trip to New York, the Foundation also offers the same search options on its website (ellisisland.org/). Both virtual and in-person visitors can enter a person’s first and last names and approximate year of birth, then view, store, or even purchase any matching passenger records or ships’ manifest logs and images.
The Foundation currently is working to increase the restored island’s offerings still further by adding a $20 million expansion called the Peopling of America Center. On its website, the Foundation promises the new center will “enlarge the story currently told of the Ellis Island Era (1892-1954) to include the entire panorama of the American immigration experience from this country’s earliest days right up to the present.” The center, which will feature videos and interactive displays produced and donated by HISTORY, is set to open in 2012—exactly 120 years after the first immigrants stepped onto Ellis Island, hoping to achieve their American dreams.
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.