Ellis Island

Ellis Island

Ellis Island has become an important part of American history: for more than six decades, from 1892 to 1954 the island was the US major immigrant inspection station. Here people met and broke up, brought their hopes for the better and some had to travel all the way back. "The island of hope, the island of tears", that is the common way to refer to Ellis Island. The hope here was given to 12 million immigrants who made their step on the soil of their new home. Tears stand for more than 3,000 immigrants who died in the local hospital without getting their 'promised land' after a tiring transatlantic journey, and part of them were sent back to their place of departure due to various reasons. Today more than 100 million American citizens can trace their roots back to their ancestors who once landed on that island.

In old times the island was a narrow sandbar where Indians hunted oysters. During the colonial era the island was a place for pirate executions. During the US War of Independence the island was bought by a New York merchant, Samuel Ellis. Not only he opened a tavern on the island, but he also gave it his name. In 1808 the state of New York bought the island from the heirs of the entrepreneur and resold it to the Federal Government, which built here barracks and a battery for 14 cannons that luckily never had a chance to take action to defend the city.

By 1814 the New World was being flooded by the first wave of immigration. At first the newcomers landed on Manhattan and then got into the immigrant inspection station at Castle Clinton. In 1892 the Government established a similar facility on Ellis Island. The first to go through it was a 30-year-old Irish woman named Annie Moor, the head of the station, colonel John Weber presented her ten golden dollars. In 1897 the wooden constructions of the center were turned to ashes due to a fire. The new red brick building of the center in French neo-Renaissance style was designed by architects Edward Tilton and William Boring in 1900 and is crowned by four copper-clad domes. It featured colossal halls, a canteen for 1,000 seats, a laundry and a hospital. The very island got expanded either, as the soil excavated during the construction of New York subway lines was taken here.

The people landed from the ships were asked 29 questions, including their names, professions and the sum of money. It was important for the American Government that the immigrants could sustain themselves on the start. The newcomers climbed a staircase to the registration hall while from above they were already watched by doctors (the so-called "six-second medical check"). Their clothes were marked with chalk accordingly to their disease, for instance, an eyesight condition, lameness, chest foundering (this could be a sign of a bad heart or tuberculosis). Those who had visible health problems or serious illnesses were sent home or were kept in the island's hospital for a long time. Some 2% of the newcomers were denied entry to the USA and sent back on various reasons, such as chronic infectious illnesses, criminal background or madness. There is even an opinion that many immigrants were able to access the country by simply rubbing off the chalk marks on their clothes or by putting it inside out. The potential migrants were also offered a sort of an IQ test, which consisted in making a ship out of a set of wooden pieces. Inspectors also denied access to single women fearing for their future prospects in a new country, but accepted brides. Thus in 1907 a Baltic steamship brought more than a thousand brides, many of whom were wedded right on the island.

During the years of mass immigration up to 20% of the incoming people were detained as unhealthy or politically undesirable (anarchists, Bolsheviks) or socially undesirable. The lucky ones to pass all of the checks rushed to the wooden pillar of kisses located off the registration hall, where they were greeted by their relatives or friends. The station was operating till 1954, now the restored building of the immigration service houses one of the biggest historical museums of the country. Its display is dedicated not only to the events that took place on Ellis Island, but to the history of migration to the US as a whole. It exhibits old photograph with histories of entire families, audio recordings of their memories, etc. The visitors can look through the hundreds of ship logs and find the surnames of their ancestors. The island is a favorite place for Americans, as it is the spot where past and present come together and the people that once endeavored on a dangerous journey and stepped into the uncharted territory from here gave future to their numerous descendants.

Address: Ellis Island
How to reach: free entry, access to the island is only available via Statue Cruises ferries departing daily (except for December 25) from two piers: Battery Park (in Manhattan) and from Liberty State Park (in Jersey City, New Jersey). A fee is charged for the ferry ride. It is recommendable to book the ticket in advance on the official website. New York Pass can be used in order to travel by ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.