Over 100 million Americans, approximately 40%, can trace their heritage to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island in search of freedom of speech and religion or economic opportunity. The island that was known as Kioshk, or Gull Island for the birds that had been its only inhabitants, by American Indians was also called Little Oyster Island by the Dutch who purchased it from them on July 12, 1603. It’s not known how the small island that is so low that it barely rises above high tide came into the possession of Samuel Ellis at about the time of the American Revolution, but his surname is the source of the lasting name for Ellis Island.
Ellis Island and nearby Liberty Island—home to the Statue of Liberty—are administered by the National Park Service. Tickets to visit both islands can be purchased from the National Park Service at Castle Clinton in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan or Liberty Park in New Jersey. More than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island from 1892 until 1954. There are a number of buildings on Ellis Island—a baggage and dormitory building, powerhouse, hospitals, laundry and kitchen, immigrant building and more but only the main building and great hall are open to visitors. The main building now houses the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
The Immigration Museum relates the story of Ellis Island by placing the emphasis on personal experience which makes it a very moving experience for most visitors. Two percent of immigrants seeking refuge in America who made it as far as Ellis Island failed to be admitted. Disability or disease, particularly trachoma, were the main reasons for not allowing entry. Sick children 12 and over were sent back to Europe alone and released in the port they had originally departed from. Younger children had to be accompanied by a parent.
Looking at Manhattan through the huge windows in the main building you can imagine how difficult it must have been for those who had come so far only to be turned away. The Ellis Island site commemorates immigrants’ courage and details the sometimes less than ideal welcome that they received particularly in the early years when graft, corruption and cruelty would best describe the inspection process they were required to endure. In 1902 a new commissioner, William Williams, instituted reforms in time for the busiest years ahead.
A “Peopling of America Center” scheduled to open in the fall of 2011, will expand the immigration story beyond the previous focus on European immigrants groups. All Americans should be able to search their story roots whether descended from African slaves, displaced Indians or more recent arrivals. Family histories and displays detailing the impact, both political and economic on communities from the smallest villages to major cities will explain the importance of immigration in America.
First designated an immigration station on April 11, 1890 and opened January 1, 1882 the facility suffered a devastating fire on the night of June 14, 1887. Fortunately no one was injured and it reopened on a larger scale December 19, 1900. Immigration reached its peak in 1907 when nearly 12,000 individuals were processed each day. The Ellis Island Immigration Station was designed by William A. Boring and Edward Lippincott Tilton. Boring and Tilton trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When immigration to America all but ceased during World War I, Ellis Island served as an internment center for 1,500 German sailors and 2,000 suspected “aliens and spies.”
Legislation limiting immigration passed after the war in 1917 reduced the number of people passing through Ellis Island for a few years, but by 1921 arrivals had increased to 500,000. Stricter laws were enacted in 1921 and a quota system was begun in 1924.
Only 21,500 immigrants were processed in 1954 and the facility was closed at the end of that year. Proclaimed part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument on May 11, 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, Ellis Island was renovated—at a cost of $170 million for the main building alone— and opened to the public on September 10, 1990.
Visitors to Ellis Island enter the Main Buildings baggage room, the same way immigrants did, and climb the stairs to the Registry Room. With a vaulted ceiling of 28,000 interlocking tiles, the Registry Room had a capacity of 5000. In the Ellis Island Galleries, Treasures from Home is a poignant exhibit of 1,000 objects and photos donated by descendants of immigrants. Ellis Island Chronicles tells the story of the island including its physical growth from the original 3.3 acre island to its current 27.5 acres. Other exhibits cover the years the island was abandoned, the restoration process, and the larger experience of immigration to America. An American Immigrant Wall of Honor on Ellis Island commemorates the names of more than 500,000 immigrants and their families. It’s located on the north-east corner of the island.
The listing includes George Washington’s great-grandfather and the forefathers of John F. Kennedy and many others. A short list of immigrants who achieved fame in America includes Rudolph Valentino, Knute Rockne, Edward G. Robinson, Bela Lugosi, Ruby Keeler, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, Kahlil Gibran, Max Factor, Xavier Cugat, Claudette Colbert, Irving Berlin and Charles Atlas. Immigrants came from Italy, Russia, Austria, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Ukraine, Hungary, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Lithuania, England, Armenia, Lebanon, Jamaica, Austria, Ireland, India, Spain, Cuba, France and many other countries helping to make America a true “melting pot.”
You can research your family history on Ellis Island at the American Family Immigration History Center. The records of more than 22 million immigrants, passengers and crew members who entered through the Port of New York and Ellis Island from 1892-1924 are available in an electronic database there on 41 computer terminals or on-line. Liberty State Park is less than 2,000 feet from the Statue of Liberty on the New Jersey Shoreline. After being processed through Ellis Island many immigrants boarded trains to their new homes throughout the United State from here.