Ellis Island was originally a military fort in the middle of New York Harbor. It was named after the War of 1812 Fort Gibson. For the first 100 years of American history the states were responsible to process new immigrants. New York had processed its immigrants at the Castle Garden Immigration Center located in lower Manhattan. In 1890 the Federal government assumed responsibility for processing immigration and the Federal government appropriated many to establish the first Federal immigration center on Ellis Ave. The island was doubled in size from 3 to six acres. On January 1,1892 the immigration center was opened. During its first year over 400,000 immigrants were processed through the center. By the time the center closed it had processed over 10.5 million immigrants.
Immigrants when they arrived were asked 29 questions including if they had money to support themselves. If they passed the questionnaire the immigrants then underwent a quick medical examine paying special attention to the possibility that the immigrant had trachoma. If the initial inspection showed any possible problems the medial staff who were all military doctors would conduct a more extensive examination. 2% of the those arriving at Ellis Island seeking immigration to the United States were turned back and not allowed entry.
History of Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954
A roof cap from the pavilion of the corridor in between the Kitchen and Laundry Building and the Powerhouse/Ferry Building
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
The history and use of Ellis Island as an immigration station and hospital from 1892 to 1954
The architectural history of the construction of the Ellis Island immigration station is extensively represented in the museum archives and library collections which house numerous reports, monographs and documents containing the original design and construction of the buildings, hospitals and support structures, and all the subsequent modifications and restorations on the buildings to the present. Documentation on the rehabilitation of all the buildings and fund raising efforts by the two NPS partners, Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and Save Ellis Island are included in the museum archives and library.
During rehabilitation of the architectural structures on Ellis Island, actual building components, such as the decorative copper flashing and drainage downspout, that are unique to the site or a time period are collected when the features have both interpretive, exhibit value and use as the template for future restoration or reconstruction of buildings.
Downspout c. 1930-1939
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
A pill bottle for the Public Health Service hospital, c. 1950
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
Attention is also given to the administrative history and official daily activities of Ellis Island when it was in operation as an immigration station focusing on the public health, medical and legal inspection policy for immigrants conducted by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the United States Public Health Service. Public Health Service work on the Ellis Island is represented in the museum collection by items such as plates and medicine bottles found on site in the hospital buildings.
A plate used by Food Services on Ellis Island
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
Some of the medical personnel employed on the island gave oral histories, diaries and photographs to the museum and this material is available for research in the museum archives and museum collection.
A nurse, outside of the contagious disease ward, with some patients
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
A United States Immigration Service inspector's hat
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
Immigration processing on Ellis Island left an indelible mark on all immigrants, from their arrival to, hopefully, their departure from the island to new lives in the United States. An attempt is made for the museum to acquire artifacts that were associated with this process. Immigration Service uniforms, Inspection Cards and literacy test cards developed in response to the 1917 Immigration (Literacy) Act tell the story of the history of the immigrant experience on Ellis Island.
An inspection card from the S.S. Antonia, February 5, 1925
National park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
A literacy test card from the United States Government Printing Office, c. 1920s
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
Immigration processing on Ellis Island went into decline after the passage of the 1924 Quota Act which imposed strict laws on immigration. The work done on Ellis Island after this Act focused more on detaining and the deportation of people from the United States.
A sign displayed on Ellis Island
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
Graffiti drawn on the plaster walls of Ellis Island
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
People held in detention throughout the history of Ellis Island often expressed their feelings by writing on the walls of their rooms. Some of this graffiti is preserved and documented in the museum collection.
n December, 1891 seventeen-year-old Annie Moore of County Cork, climbed aboard the USS Nevada, along with her two younger brothers, in Queensland, Ireland (now known as Cobh). On January 1, 1892 they disembarked to join their parents in New York, the first of seven hundred new immigrants to enter the United States through Ellis Island, formerly considered part of New York but declared by a judge, New Jersey-owned in 1998. By the year of its closure in 1954, more than twelve million more would follow Annie through the portals of the reception area to become United States citizens. The last was a Norwegian merchant-seaman named Arne Peterson.
View of Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay with Lower Manhattan in the background
In the years prior to 1892, New York City had processed immigrants through Castle Garden Immigration Depot, perhaps as many as eight million people. There were other ports of entry along the eastern and western seaboards, but the state system was collapsing when the Federal government took control of immigration in 1890. They consolidated the approved entryways and funneled the steerage passengers (1st and 2nd class could be processed aboard ship and disembark directly on Manhattan) through Ellis Island. They conducted a landfill project, doubling its size to six acres and constructed a processing station, which opened the first day of 1892.
An immigrant family in the baggage room of Ellis Island Immigration Station, 1905
The first Ellis Island immigrant station, opened on January 1, 1892 was completely destroyed by fire on June 15, 1897
The second Ellis Island immigration station, as seen in this 1905 photograph, opened on December 17, 1900
The new immigrants came from all the nations of Europe, with noticeable increases from lands of Southern Europe and Russia. Approximately one million arrived every year from 1905-1912. In 1924 Congress passed the Immigration Act, greatly reducing the number of immigrants allowed in and moving much of the processing overseas at the U.S. embassies. They established quotas, seeking to reduce the number of people entering the United States, especially Jews, Italians, and Slavs from Southern and Eastern Europe. The American Eugenics movement played a role in persuading Congress to assist in keeping out people they considered defective or undesirable.
Footage showing immigrants disembarking from a steam ferryboat, July 9, 1903
Newly arrived immigrants await inspection at the Ellis Island Immigrant Building, 1904
Part of the regular processing of new immigrants, culled from their ranks those with communicable diseases, those who were foreign criminals escaping law enforcement, and the obviously indigent who were not considered able-bodied or did not possess enough money to get a new start in the United States. A fairly rigorous medical inspection sent about 2% of the passengers back to their port of origin. About three thousand died in the Ellis Island hospital during the years of the Island’s operation. Estimates of the number of Americans descended from immigrants who passed through Ellis Island range up to one hundred million people.
Aerial view of Ellis Island with the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island in the foreground, downtown Jersey City on the left and Manhattan, mostly out of view, on the right
After about thirty two years of operation, with the controversial Immigration Act, the use of Ellis Island as port of entry declined. By the 1930s it was used primarily for detention and deportation processing and for POWs of the Second World War. Today, a museum on the island interprets the history of immigration in the United States, especially as it relates to Ellis Island. While foreigners entering the United States to settle also occurred through other ports, Ellis Island has become the symbolic place for people fleeing persecution, poverty and hopelessness to seek a new life of freedom in the United States — to work hard and create a healthier and more prosperous future for their families.
Immigrants bound for Ellis Island approach New York City, with the Statue of Liberty in the background
Memorial to Annie Moore and her siblings in Cobh, County Cork, Ireland
There is a lovely statue in the town of Cobh of Annie Moore and her little brothers, with their bundle and hope, leaving to join their parents who preceded them to New York. They are an appropriate symbol themselves of those whom Providence would bring to these shores to continue the building of a nation unlike any other in history. Think of how God brought your forebearers here and eventually established your family to serve God and raise up new generations.
Ellis Island Welcomed Thousands to America—But It Was Also a Detention Center
E very year, roughly 4 million people visit the Ellis Island immigration station, wandering the manicured museum grounds and gazing at the nearby Statue of Liberty. But today&rsquos experience visiting the tiny speck of land off the southern tip of Manhattan is a far cry from what Ellen Knauff saw there in 1948. &ldquoThe whole place [had] the look of a group of kennels,&rdquo she wrote in her memoir years later.
Born in Germany, Knauff spent part of World War II working for the United Kingdom&rsquos Royal Air Force and later the United States Army. After the war, she married Kurt Knauff, a U.S. citizen and Army veteran stationed in Germany. Newly married, she traveled to the United States for the first time in 1948, planning to benefit from a special immigration law enacted by Congress to make it easy for soldiers to return home with their new loves.
Instead, Ellen was greeted by the hard reality of the Ellis Island immigration prison. These days, most people think of Ellis Island as the place that welcomed generations of newcomers. That is certainly true. As many as 12 million people are thought to have first stepped foot in the United States through the island&rsquos immigration offices, which opened on Jan. 1, 1892. But in 1907, its busiest year, one out of ten arriving passengers experienced Ellis Island as a hurdle rather than an open door, spending days or months stuck inside the detention center.
&ldquoAs we approached Ellis Island, I could see that parts of it were enclosed by double wire fences topped by barbed wire and marked by what appeared to be watchtowers. These fenced-off areas were subdivided by more fences,&rdquo Knauff recalled. &ldquoI called Ellis Island a concentration camp with steam heat and running water,&rdquo she added, borrowing language that the New York Times had used several years earlier when the facility held people of Italian, German and Japanese descent during the war.
Knauff was part of the 10% who got stuck there. After she arrived at Ellis Island, despite her American husband, she was not permitted to continue into the United States.
Immigration officials refused to tell Knauff why she couldn&rsquot leave. They claimed that her presence in the United States threatened national security, but refused to disclose their evidence. Insistent, Knauff fought all the way to the Supreme Court. There she received little sympathy. The justices granted the federal government broad powers to keep people out. &ldquoWhatever the procedure authorized by Congress is, it is due process as far as an alien denied entry is concerned,&rdquo the court announced in January 1950.
With judicial approval, immigration officials kept Knauff on Ellis Island while she mounted a public-relations campaign. A few times, she won temporary relief from confinement, only to be returned to the island prison months later. In total, Knauff spent almost two years stuck there. Eventually she convinced immigration officials to give her a hearing where she learned why she was so threatening to the United States. Witnesses claimed she was a Communist spy, a powerful accusation in the early years of the Cold War. Under the antiseptic light of transparency, the government&rsquos claims were revealed to be too flimsy to continue confining her. Immigration officials had acted on nothing more than &ldquohearsay, uncorroborated by direct evidence,&rdquo the board of immigration appeals concluded. Ellen Knauff finally made her way off the island for good in 1951.
By 1954, just three years later, President Dwight Eisenhower was ready to push immigration law enforcement in a radical new direction. That year, the Eisenhower Administration decided to shut down six immigration detention facilities, including the one on Ellis Island. &ldquoToday the little island between the Statue of Liberty and the skyline and piers of New York seems to have served its purpose,&rdquo Eisenhower&rsquos attorney general Herbert Brownell announced on Nov. 11, 1954. Instead of operating large immigration prisons, the federal government would make confinement the exception not the rule. As officials decided whether migrants were deportable, they would let people live wherever they wanted, blending into communities. This &ldquois one more step toward humane administration of the Immigration laws,&rdquo Brownell continued.
A few days later, the final person held on Ellis Island, Arne Peterssen, left on a ferry heading toward Manhattan. A newspaper report at the time described him as &ldquoa Norwegian seaman who had overstayed his shore leave.&rdquo The United States government knew that he had entered the country with permission to stay temporarily and it knew that he had not left. Peterssen was as deportable as if he had come to the United States without the government&rsquos permission. Yet immigration officials released him into the bustle of New York City. It remains unclear what happened to him after that. We don&rsquot know if he left the United States, stayed in New York, or headed somewhere else in the country. All we know is that the United States decided that a migrant&rsquos violation of immigration law was no reason to lock him up.
Difficult as it is to believe today, the United States government got remarkably close to abolishing immigration prisons, even with the memories of war still fresh and the Cold War beginning. For the next 25 years, federal policy would not change. If the threat of Soviet military strength and the fevered pitch of Cold War ideological fights wasn&rsquot enough to keep Eisenhower from shutting down immigration prisons, what is stopping us now?
A Brief History of Ellis Island
1620s: The Dutch arrive in New York harbor and begin building their colony of New Amsterdam. The Dutch would refer to this island as one of the three “Oyster Islands” in New York harbor. Native Americans were the first to utilize the land. They often visited the island because of its’ large oyster beds, which was an integral source of food. This was the inspiration for the Dutch naming of the islands.Credit: National Parks Service
1674-1679: After the British took hold of New Netherland, the island was bestowed to Captain William Dyer by Sir Edmund Andros, the Colonial Governor of New York. It was then renamed Dyer’s Island.
1774: Samuel Ellis purchases the island. This New York merchant builds a tavern on the island where men would come to dig for oysters and enjoy the views of the harbor.
1785: Ellis attempts to sell the island, but fails. He eventually passes away in 1794 and the island is given to his descendants.
1808: The United States Federal Government acquires the island from New York State for harbor defense.
1811: Fort Gibson is constructed by the United States War Department, built to protect the harbor during the war of 1812. The fort consisted of barracks, gunpowder magazine, and a battery of canons.Credit: National Parks Service
1812: The British never directly attacked the harbor during the war and thus Fort Gibson never saw any action.
1890: The Federal Government takes control of immigration from the states.
1890-1891: Before the immigration depot began construction, the island was doubled in size with landfill. A ferry slip and dock were built, and some of the older military post buildings were adapted for reuse.
1892: New immigration station opens up at Ellis Island on January 1.
1897: Immigration station destroyed by a fire on June 15. No one was killed.
1900: Current Main Building opens, made completely fireproof by the architectural firm of Boring and Tilton. Opening day was December 17.Credit: National Parks Service
1901: Kitchen, Laundry and Powerhouse buildings were built and the island was further enlarged by landfill to allow for a hospital complex.
1902: In March, the Main Hospital Building officially opened, with space and equipment for up to 125 patients.
1903-1909: A number of other buildings were added to the hospital complex such as an administration building, a new hospital extension, and the psychopathic ward. Enlarged again with landfill, the island then allowed room for the building of the Contagious Disease Hospital and Isolation Wards.Credit: National Parks Service
1920s: Last swell of construction involving a New Immigration Building, New Ferry House, and the new Recreation Building and Shelters.
1939-1946: United States Coast Guard occupies Ellis Island to establish a training station, utilizing many of the buildings already on the island. By 1946, the training station was decommissioned.
1951-1954: The Coast Guard returns to the island to establish a Port Security Unit.
1954: Ellis Island Immigration Station is closed permanently and the island is abandoned.Credit: National Parks Service
1955: The island is declared surplus Federal property.
1965: Ellis Island becomes part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Put into effect by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a signed proclamation.
1986: The work begins to repair and refurbish the main immigration building on Ellis Island.
1990: Restored Main Building reopens as an immigration museum.
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Legends of America
From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was America’s largest and most active immigration station, where over 12 million immigrants were processed. On average, the inspection process took approximately 3-7 hours. For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis Island truly was an “Island of Hope” – the first stop on their way to new opportunities and experiences in America. For the rest, it became the “Island of Tears” – a place where families were separated and individuals were denied entry into the United States.
Henry Hudson arrived in what is now New York Bay in 1609. In 1624, the Dutch established a fur trading station on Governor’s Island and in 1625 founded New Amsterdam in Lower Manhattan. In 1664, the English took possession of New Netherland from the Dutch, renaming it New York. Between 1674 and 1679, Ellis Island, at that time called one of the three “Oyster Islands” in New York Harbor, was granted to Captain William Dyre (the collector of customs and future mayor of New York) by the Colonial Governor of New York, Sir Edmund Andros. During Dyre’s ownership, this Oyster Island was renamed Dyre’s Island.
For the next 100 years, the island went through a succession of owners and names. In 1774 the island was purchased by Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant. “That pleasant situated island,” as Ellis called it in an ad for its sale in 1785, was a favorite spot for those who wanted to dig for oysters or enjoy the view of New York’s bustling harbor while visiting the tavern that he built there. Ellis failed to sell his island, which was inherited by his descendants after he passed away in 1794. In 1808, New York State bought the property, which by that time had several claimants, and then conveyed ownership to the United States government.
In the early 1800s, the young American government realized that Ellis Island, with its clear view of the entrance to New York Harbor, had strategic value as a defense post. Since the British had easily invaded New York with very little resistance during the American Revolution, the protection of New York became a top priority for the new government. Preceding the War of 1812, the United States War Department constructed Fort Gibson on Ellis Island. Fort Gibson consisted of a barracks for a small garrison, a powder magazine, and a battery of guns located along the island’s eastern edge.
Other newly erected or refurbished forts along New York harbor included: Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island Fort Wood on Liberty Island Fort Clinton in Manhattan (now known as Castle Clinton), and Fort Columbus and Fort Williams on Governor’s Island. Like its counterparts around New York Bay, Fort Gibson never saw action. During the war, the British blockaded the harbor but never directly attacked the city.
In 1891, the federal government assumed responsibility from the states for regulating immigration through the Immigration Act of 1891, which established the Office of Immigration (later the Bureau of Immigration) to administer immigration affairs. The government also appropriated money to build a new immigrant inspection station on Ellis Island. The Immigration Act assigned the Marine Hospital Service (later the Public Health Service) the responsibility of examining the health of immigrants entering the United States.
Before construction of Ellis Island’s first immigration depot began, the island was doubled in size with landfill. A ferry slip was dredged and a dock installed next to the main building site. A number of older buildings from the island’s time as a military post were adapted for re-use. Ellis Island’s first immigration building, constructed of Georgia pine, opened on January 1, 1892.
Due to the economic depression at the time, immigration was light and Ellis Island inspectors had no difficulty in processing the fewer than 20,000 immigrants who arrived annually. On June 15, 1897, a fire destroyed the complex of wooden buildings. Although 140 immigrants and numerous employees were on the island, no one was killed.
The Hospital building is abandoned today, photo by Carol Highsmith
The government announced almost immediately that Ellis Island would be rebuilt with fireproof buildings. The first building to be built was the new Main Immigration Building, which opened on December 17, 1900. Following its completion, the Kitchen and Laundry and Powerhouse buildings were erected in 1901 and the island was enlarged by landfill to make room for a hospital complex. In March of 1902, the Main Hospital Building opened. The hospital had the space and equipment to care for 125 patients but it was still not enough–the hospital was overwhelmed with patients diagnosed with trachoma, favus, and other contagious illnesses that warranted exclusion. Over the next seven years, additional buildings were added to the hospital complex including the Hospital Addition/Administration Building, the New Hospital Extension, and the Psychopathic Ward. The island was also enlarged once more using landfill, which allowed for the construction of a Contagious Disease Hospital and Isolation Wards, as well as additional support buildings.
On a typical day at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, immigrants came face to face with inspectors, interpreters, nurses, doctors, social workers, and many others. As a large federal facility employing approximately 500 employees at a time, Ellis Island was a well-organized workforce.
Immigrants being processed at Ellis Island
The complex work of processing thousands of immigrants a year required a full complement of staff. Some names are known others remain anonymous, but all of them contributed to the primary function of the Immigration Station on Ellis Island — to make sure that newcomers to the United States were legally and medically fit to enter the country.
The Emergency Quota Act, passed in 1921, ended U.S’s open door immigration policy. The law significantly reduced the number of admissions by setting quotas according to nationality. The number of each nationality that could be admitted to the United States was limited to 3% of that nationality’s representation in the U.S. census of 1910. The law created havoc for those on Ellis Island and thousands of immigrants were stranded on the island awaiting deportation. The island sometimes became so overcrowded that officials had to admit excess-quota immigrants.
Deported men wave goodbye to New York
The First Quota Act was replaced with the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. This act further limited admissions of each nationality to the United States to 2% of that nationality’s representation in the 1890 census. The act sought not only to limit admissions to the United States but also to curtail immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, who by the 1900s comprised over 50% of the immigrant flow. Additionally, the Immigration Act of 1924 allowed prospective immigrants to undergo inspection before they left their homeland, making the trip to Ellis Island unnecessary.
Castle Garden Immigration Station
From August 1, 1855, through April 18, 1890, immigrants arriving in the state of New York came through Castle Garden. America's first official immigrant examining and processing center, Castle Garden welcomed approximately 8 million immigrants — most from Germany, Ireland, England, Scotland, Sweden, Italy, Russia, and Denmark.
Castle Garden welcomed its last immigrant on April 18, 1890. After the closing of Castle Garden, immigrants were processed at an old barge office in Manhattan until the opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Center on 1 January 1892. More than one in six native-born Americans are descendants of the eight million immigrants who entered the United States through Castle Garden.
Ellis Island Opens
First Ellis Island Immigration Station in New York Harbor. Public domain. Available from Wikimedia Commons.
On 1 January 1892, Ellis Island opened. On that day, 700 immigrants arrived on three ships. The first immigrant processed was Annie Moore, an Irish teenager who arrived with her brothers Anthony and Philip. The original immigration station was destroyed by a fire on 15 June 1897. The second immigration station opened on 17 December 1900. Before it was completed, the passengers were processed at the Barge Office.
Ellis Island closed on 12 November 1954. More than twelve hundred immigrants had arrived at the port, which is shared by New York and New Jersey.
My Schneider ancestors immigrated in 1892, but I do not know if they came through Ellis Island. However, my 2nd-great-grandfather Carl Joseph Schneider arrived at the port when he returned from a visit to Germany. He sailed on the Noordland and arrived on 16 August 1900. By then, he had become an American citizen. He was listed on the manifest as Charles Schneider.
Manifest SS Noordland, arrival in New York, NY, 16 August 1900. Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Original data: Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957. Microfilm Publication T715. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service National Archives at Washington, D.C.
My 2nd-great-grandfather Andrew T. Anderson (formerly Andreas Troedsson) also arrived at Ellis Island after a visit to his homeland. He traveled to Sweden in 1912, and returned on the Caronia on 28 July 1912.
Our office has microfilm of indexes to passenger lists of vessels arriving at the Port of New York for the years 1820-1846 and 1897-1943. The passenger list records were created by the U.S. Customs Service (Record Group 36), and the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] (Record Group 85). The passenger lists themselves are available at our office via the online databases listed below.
You can read more about these microfilm publications, and the locations where you can view them, in the National Archives online Microfilm Catalog. Search for the exact publication number ("T715", for example) as the keyword.
Visiting Our Facility
For information on visiting our facility, please call us at 212.401.1620 or 866.840.1752 (toll-free) or view details online.
Researchers coming to the Regional Archives should review the researcher guidelines and facility information. Researchers may be required to present photo identification to obtain a NARA researcher identification card.
Original Record Note:
Due to the fragile nature of the original records, researchers will only have access to the microfilm and digital copies.
Self-service microfilm copies at our facility are $.40 per page. Certified copies are an additional $15 per record. Staff are available to help with research and copies. If you require a certified copy from microfilm, you must ask for staff assistance.
We are unable to search our microfilm for specific entries or provide reproductions in response to letters or telephone calls. The microfilm is available for free public use at our facility.
If you are not planning to visit our facility and conduct your research, you can submit an online request for copies of ship passenger arrival records. If you can provide sufficient information, they will conduct a search of the indexes and provide you with pertinent copies of ship manifest pages.
Ellis Island Opens 1892 - History
Seventeen million people entered the United States between 1892 and 1954 by passing through the immigration station on Ellis Island, the largest formal gateway to America. Today more than 40 percent of all living Americans can trace their roots to an ancestor who came this way. While the Statue of Liberty beckoned people to America's shores with her symbolic promises of freedom and a better life, Ellis Island embodied the reality of immigration during its second great wave from 1901 to 1914. The hopefuls who came Italy, Africa, and the French West Indies had their first taste of America at the island as they went through the somewhat tormenting and certainly bewildering process of acceptance.
Originally a tiny island of 3.5 acres of slush, sand, and oyster shells in the New York Harbor, Ellis Island grew as need dictated to its present size of 27.5 man-made acres housing a complex of 33 buildings. Much of the landfill for the island came from the ballast of immigrant ships and materials excavated during construction of the New York subway system.
In 1892 the first federal immigration station opened on Ellis Island and was enthusiastically described in Harper's Weekly as
An architectural competition was held in September 1897, among the first under the Tarnsey Act, and a contract was awarded to the New York firm of Boring & Tilton in December 1897 for the design of the new Ellis Island Immigration Station. The government's design program called for a fireproof structure to accommodate the processing of 5,000 immigrants a day (up to 8,000 in an emergency). The main problem the architects had to address was circulation- -people needed to be processed with a minimum of confusion and delay as to avoid overnight stays.
Designed to accommodate no more than 500,000 immigrants a year, the station was soon hopelessly overcrowded with yearly totals in the 700,000 range. The record high for Ellis Island was in 1907 when 1,004,756 immigrants passed through its doors. The numbers dropped off in 1914 with the beginning of World War I and remained low until the end of the war. With the "Red Scare" haunting the country, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 1921 to check the rising tide of postwar immigration.
The Main Building was designed in the French Renaissance style and composed of brick laid in Flemish bond and trimmed with limestone and granite "boasting quoins, rustification, and splendid belvederes." Triple-arch entrances that rose well into the second story marked the east and west sides in a grand style. Both Boring and Tilton attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts which may explain the influence of the French Renaissance style on the project. An analysis in Architectural Record (1902) pointed out the "bloated" character of the detailing and reasoned that the heavy handedness of the facade along with the chromatic scheme made the building easier to read from a distance, appropriate for one situated on an island in a busy harbor. The immense reception and inspection center was 388 feet long and 164 feet wide with heights of 57 feet to the balustrade and 126 feet to the dome finials.
While the Main Building and the station as a whole evolved and expanded over the years, one of the most notable additions was to the Great Hall. In July 1916, an explosion occurred on Black Tom Island, a loading facility just a few hundred yards off Ellis Island, where munitions destined for Germany were loaded on barges and
The work of the Guastavino Brothers is well represented in buildings constructed during the first quarter of the 1900s in New York, Grand Central Station's Oyster Bar and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and across the country. The Guastavino's technique and materials are derived from Moors or older antecedents and perfected in the mid-nineteenth century. The basic idea is to build a thin dome or vault of more-or-less flat ceramic tiles in two or three overlapping layers laminated with a carefully proportioned quick-drying "cohesive" Portland cement. The amazing part is that nothing else in the way of additional support--no steel, no reinforcements, and usually not even a scaffold during construction.
In the Great Hall, creamy white tiles are set in a herringbone pattern, distinctive to the Guastavinos, and aside from being beautiful, the vaulted tile ceiling is both fireproof and exceptionally strong. In the course of the current restoration, the ceiling only needed seventeen new tiles out of 28,282.
General repairs, new construction, and landscaping were done on Ellis Island during the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. The construction of a new fireproof ferryhouse in Art Deco style was one of the most interesting improvements, long with the creation of a large mural, Role of the Immigrant in Industrial America, (1935-36) by Edward Lanning, in he dining hall of the Main Building. The ferryhouse still stands but awaits attention as do many other buildings on Ellis Island. The mural was removed in he 1960s and reinstalled in a Brooklyn courthouse, but hopefully will be returned to Ellis Island to provide another record of the contributions made by immigrants.
Ellis Island was designated part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, administered by the National Park Service of the Department of Interior. Funds for the restoration of both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are being raised Privately by the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation, set up in 1982 by Lee Iacocca at the request of President Ronald Reagan. Funds are still being raised to meet the cost of the restoration, estimated at $150 million, and the centennial celebration in 1992.
Today's visitors to Ellis Island, although unencumbered by bundled possessions and the harrowing memory of a transatlantic journey, retrace the steps of twelve million immigrants who approached America's "front doors to freedom" in the early twentieth century. Ellis Island receives today's arriving ferry passengers as it did hundreds of thousands of new arrivals between 1897 and 1938. In place of the business-like machinery of immigration inspection, the restored Main Hall now houses the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, dedicated to commemorating the immigrants' stories of trepidation and triumph, courage and rejection, and the lasting image of the American dream.
During its peak years-1892 to 1924 Ellis Island received thousands of immigrants a day. Each was scrutinized for disease or disability as the long line of hopeful new arrivals made their way up the steep stairs to the great, echoing Registry Room. Over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry in the United States to a man, woman, or child whose name passed from a steamship manifest sheet to an inspector's record book in the great Registry Room at Ellis Island.
With restrictions on immigration in the 1920s Ellis Island's population dwindled, and the station finally closed its doors in 1954. Its grand brick and limestone buildings gradually deteriorated in the fierce weather of New York Harbor. Concern about this vital part of America's immigrant history led to the inclusion of Ellis Island as part of Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. Private citizens mounted a campaign to preserve the Island, and one of the most ambitious restoration projects in American history returned Ellis Island's Main Building to its former grandeur in September, 1990.
Restoration of Ellis Island's Main Building was the most extensive of any single building in the United States. Often compared to the refurbishment of Versailles in France, the project took eight years to complete at a cost of 156 million dollars. Opened September 10, 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is New York City's fourth largest and receives almost two million visitors annually-twice as many as entered here in 1907, Ellis Island's peak immigration year. The Immigration Museum's five permanent exhibits contain 5,000 artifacts and hundreds of photographs which trace the history of Ellis Island and the story of American immigration. The museum also incorporates the American Immigrant Wall of Honor®, a listing of over five hundred thousand immigrants' names. From anarchist (Emma Goldman) to pianist Irving Berlin), from mobster ("Lucky" Luciano) to mayor (New York's Abraham Beame), and from inventor (Igor Sikorsky) to film star (Rudolph Valentino), immigrants added the threads of their lives, whether good or bad, to the nation's fabric. Over 100 million Americans, some forty percent of the country's population, can trace their ancestry in the United States to a man, woman, or child who passed from a steamship to a ferry to the inspection lines in the great Registry Room at Ellis Island. Not surprisingly, the General Services Administration described Ellis Island as "one of the most famous landmarks in the world" when it tried to sell the island as surplus Federal property in the 1950s. Along with a chunk of history, the buyer would receive thirty-five buildings, two huge water tanks, the ferryboat Ellis Island, thousands of feet of chain link fence left over from the island days as an enemy and alien detention center. Advertised in numerous newspapers, the island drew dozens of prospective bids. Suggestions included an atomic research center, gambling casino, an amusement park, a slaughterhouse, a womens prison, and "the perfect city of tomorrow." No bid was high enough, however, and no sale was made. The doors remained locked, the buildings empty. For ten years Ellis Island stood vacant, subject to vandals and looters who made off with anything they could carry, from doorknobs to filing cabinets. The building's Beaux-Arts copper ornamentation deteriorated. Snow swirled through broken windows, roofs leaked, and weeds sprang up in corridors, growing in the footprints of anxious immigrants long gone. Ellis Island was forgotten, swallowed by the fierce weather of New York Harbor. In October of 1964 Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior for President Lyndon Johnson, visited Ellis Island and recognized it as a vital part of America's heritage. Udall urged President Johnson to rescue the island and preserve a piece of America's past by placing the island in the permanent care of the National Park Service. Ellis Island became part of Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. Rebuilding the seawall - to keep the island's landfill from slipping into the harbor - became the first preservation task. Congress appropriated one million dollars for its upkeep. Yet Ellis Island remained a magnificent wreck. In 1976 the dilapidated Main Building opened to the public, and more than fifty thousand visitors a year toured the historic site until the island again closed in 1984. Public awareness and concern over Ellis Island's disrepair had inspired private citizens to mount a campaign to save what was left of its buildings. The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation was created in 1982 in an effort to restore both monuments, and in the early 1980s, funded by private donations, work began on Ellis Island. Although the Main Building's foundations were in sound condition, its interior walls had sucked up harbor moisture like a sponge. Ceilings had collapsed walls crumbled at the touch. Some thirty thousand square feet of rotting wooden floors were torn up. To dry the building out engineers used huge generator-powered furnaces to pump warm air through thousands of feet of flexible tubing strung throughout the building's rooms-a process which took over two years. During this time, restoration crews took inventory of everything in the Main Building-from radiators and toilets to sinks and electric fans-in an attempt to use as many original fixtures as possible. The Main Building's Registry Room, which had been the principal waystation for most immigrants processed at Ellis Island, provided a benchmark for restoration. The time period from 1918-1924 was selected as it coincided with the construction date of the Hall's 56-foot high barrel-vaulted ceiling and peak immigration years.
The Registry Room's original plaster ceiling had been severely damaged in 1916 by the explosion of munition barges set afire by German saboteurs on New Jersey's Black Tom Wharf, a mile away. The ceiling was rebuilt in 1917 by Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish immigrant who had arrived with his little boy in the United States in 1881. Guastavino also brought with him ancient Catalonian building techniques, and together he and his son developed a self-supporting system of interlocking terra-cotta tiles that proved light, strong, fireproof, and economical. During the Registry Room's restoration, when the ceiling was inspected and cleaned, only seventeen of the 28,832 tiles originally set by the Guastavinos had to be replaced. As restoration progressed, workers discovered graffiti left by the immigrants, hidden beneath successive layers of paint on the building's walls. Scratched into the original plaster were names and initials, dating from 1900 to 1954, accompanied by poems, portraits, religious symbols, and cartoons of birds, flowers, and people. Some images were written in pencil, others in the blue chalk the medical inspectors used. Also inscribed were words of heartache. "Damned is the day I left my homeland," wrote one Italian hand, and in Greek sad and angry fingers scrawled, "Blast you America with your much money who took the Greeks away from their race." To save these telling accounts of the immigrants' frustration, joy, and perseverance, a fine arts conservator used methods developed to preserve the frescoes of Italy.
Workers also focused on restoring the Main Building's exterior. Years of exposure had painted it black with soot and the dirt of pollution. The building's granite foundation washed clean with a solution of chemicals and water, and high-pressure steam jets polished its delicate limestone trim. The National Park Service's 1978 study of the Main Building revealed that only fifty percent of the original copper ornamentation remained in place. Using surviving pieces as models, workers replaced the cornices and cupolas that had disappeared or deteriorated. New copper domes, installed piece by piece, were crowned with spires placed by helicopter. Today's visitors are still awed by their trip through Ellis Island. Freshly minted, the tiled and turreted Main Building still welcomes with a grand gesture. The Immigration Museum's exhibits educate rather than intimidate-and open the eyes of visitors to the complex and often contradictory emotions immigrants felt when they arrived on America's shores. Ellis Island symbolized America's majesty, but also its willingness to reject the unwanted. As immigrants continue to flow into the United States, Ellis Island speaks not only of past promises, but also of the future.
Ellis Island was the subject of a border dispute between New York State and New Jersey (see below). According to the United States Census Bureau, the island, which was largely artificially created through the landfill process, has an official land area of 129,619 square meters, or 32 acres, more than 83 percent of which lies in the city of Jersey City. The natural portion of the island, lying in New York City, is 21,458 square meters (5.3 acres), and is completely surrounded by the artificially created portion. For New York State tax purposes it is assessed as Manhattan Block 1, Lot 201. Since 1998, it also has a tax number assigned by the state of New Jersey.
Ellis Island acquired its name from Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker, possibly from Wales.
TO BE SOLD
By Samuel Ellis, no. 1, Greenwich Street, at the north river near the Jewish Market, That pleasant situated Island called Oyster Island, lying in New Bay, near Powle’s Hook, together with all its improvements which are considerable also, two lots of ground, one at the lower end of Queen street, joining Luke’s wharf, the other in Greenwich street, between Petition and Dey streets, and a parcel of spars for masts, yards, brooms, bowsprits, & c. and a parcel of timber fit for pumps and buildings of docks and a few barrels of excellent shad and herrings, and others of an inferior quality fit for shipping and a few thousand of red herring of his own curing, that he will warrant to keep good in carrying to any part of the world, and a quantity of twine which he sell very low, which is the best sort of twine, for tyke nets. Also a large Pleasure Sleigh, almost new.
—Samuel Ellis advertising in Loudon’s New York-Packet, 1778
The Ellis Island Immigrant Station was designed by architects Edward Lippincott Tilton and William Boring. They received a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition for the building's design.
The federal immigration station opened on January 1, 1892 and was closed on November 12, 1954, but not before 12 million immigrants were inspected there by the US Bureau of Immigration (Immigration and Naturalization Service). There are unsubstantiated estimates for immigrants processed there as high as 20 million. In the 35 years before Ellis Island opened, over 8 million immigrants had been processed locally by New York State officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in Manhattan.
Entrance to the museum. Ellis Island was the first stop for most immigrants from Europe.Ellis Island was one of 30 processing stations opened by the federal government. It was the major processing station for third class/steerage immigrants entering the United States in 1892 it processed 70% of all immigrants at the time.
Wealthy immigrants that traveled first class and second class would get automatic entry into the United States. Those who did not travel first or second class had to pass a six second physical examination. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island's hospital facilities for long periods of time. Then they were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money they carried with them. Generally those immigrants who were approved spent from three to five hours at Ellis Island. However more than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers and immigrants were rejected outright because they were considered "likely to become a public charge." About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity.
Writer Louis Adamic came to America from Slovenia in southeastern Europe in 1913. Adamic described the night he spent on Ellis Island. He and many other immigrants slept on bunk beds in a huge hall. Lacking a warm blanket, the young man "shivered, sleepless, all night, listening to snores" and dreams "in perhaps a dozen different languages".
After the 1924 "Quota Laws" placed restrictions on immigration, the United States government began processing immigrants in its embassies and consulates of the emigrant country. From 1924 until its closure Ellis Island was used only sporadically for immigration. It would be mostly used for detainees and refugees. Italians were detained, Japanese were interned, but the major group to be detained were German Americans during World War II falsely accused of being Nazis.
As with all historic areas administered by the National Park Service, Ellis Island, along with Statue of Liberty, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
Today Ellis Island houses a museum reachable by ferry from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey and from the southern tip of Manhattan in New York City. The Statue of Liberty, sometimes thought to be on Ellis Island because of its symbolism as a welcome to immigrants, is actually on nearby Liberty Island, which is about 1/2 mile to the South.
Ellis island was also known as "The Island of Tears" or "Heartbreak Island" because of the 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage.
Other notable officials at Ellis Island included Edward F. McSweeney (assistant commissioner), Joseph Murray (assistant commissioner), Dr. George Stoner (chief surgeon), Augustus Frederick Sherman (chief clerk), Dr. Victor Heiser (surgeon), Thomas W. Salmon (surgeon), Howard Knox (surgeon), Peter Mikolainis (interpreter), Maud Mosher (matron), Fiorello H. LaGuardia (interpreter), and Philip Cowen (immigrant inspector).
Prominent amongst the missionaries and immigrant aid workers were Rev. Michael J. Henry and Rev. Anthony J. Grogan (Irish Catholics), Rev. Gaspare Moretto (Italian Catholic), Alma E. Mathews (Methodist), Rev. Georg Doring (German Lutheran), Rev. Reuben Breed (Episcopalian), Michael Lodsin (Baptist), Brigadier Thomas Johnson (Salvation Army), Ludmila K. Foxlee (YWCA), Athena Marmaroff (Women's Christian Temperance Union), Alexander Harkavy (HIAS), Cecilia Greenstone and Cecilia Razovsky (National Council of Jewish Women).
Noted entertainers that performed for detained aliens and US and allied servicemen at the island included Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Enrico Caruso, Rudy Vallee, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, and Lionel Hampton and his orchestra. Ellis Island is still open for touring.
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902Ellis Island would see a new immigrant entering the United States. More than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from County Cork, Ireland, on January 1, 1892. She and her two brothers were coming to America to meet their parents, who had moved to New York two years prior. She received a greeting from officials and a $10.00 gold piece. The last person to pass through Ellis Island was a Norwegian merchant seaman by the name of Arne Peterssen in 1954. After 1924 when the National Origins Act was passed, the only immigrants to pass through there were displaced persons or war refugees. Today, over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America through the island before dispersing to points all over the country.
An inaccurate myth persists that government officials on Ellis Island compelled immigrants to take new names against their wishes. In fact, no historical records bear this out. Federal immigration inspectors were under strict bureaucratic supervision and were more interested in preventing inadmissible aliens from entering the country (which they were held accountable for) rather than assisting them in trivial personal matters such as altering their names. In addition, the inspectors used the passenger lists given them by the steamship companies to process each foreigner. These were the sole immigration records for entering the country and were prepared not by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration but by steamship companies such as the Cunard Line, the White Star Line, the North German Lloyd Line, the Hamburg-Amerika Line, the Italian Steam Navigation Company, the Red Star Line, the Holland America Line, the Austro-American Line, and so forth.
Many immigrants were tested for mental problems, physical problems and other illnesses. Those who were wealthy did not have to take these exams.
The symbols below were chalked on the clothing of potentially sick immigrants following the six-second medical examination. The doctors would look at them as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area up to the Great Hall. Immigrants' behaviour would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase in any way. Some only entered the country by surreptitiously wiping the chalk marks off or by turning their clothes inside out.
C - Conjunctivitis
B - Back
CT - Trachoma
E - Eyes
F - Face
FT - Feet
G - Goiter
H - Heart
K - Hernia
M - Vaginal Infection
N - Neck
P - Physical and Lungs
Pg - Pregnancy
S - Senility
Sc - Scalp (Favus)
SI - Special Inquiry
X - Suspected Mental Defect
X (circled) - Definite signs of mental disease
Ellis Island immigrants attaining success in America include Lucky Luciano, Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, Knute Rockne, Ben Shahn, Arshile Gorky, Pola Negri, Anna Q. Nilsson, Claudette Colbert, Chef Boyardee (Ettore Boiardi), Erich von Stroheim, Felix Frankfurter, Father Flanagan, Joseph Stella, Arthur Tracy, Jule Styne, Pauline Newman, Irene Bordoni, Anthony Kiedis, Charles Atlas, Isaac Asimov, the Trapp Family Singers, Ezio Pinza, Ludwig Bemelmans, John Kluge, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, Anzia Yezierska, Douglas Fraser, Sig Ruman, Michael Romanoff, Bela Lugosi, Charles Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Arthur Murray, and Max Factor.
The interior of the hall at Ellis Islands museum.The main building now houses a museum in addition to being a historic site. It is legally in New York state, while the southern part of the island, which holds the unrestored infirmary and hospital buildings, is legally part of New Jersey.
There is a bridge between Ellis Island with Liberty State Park in Jersey City. It was built during the restoration of the island and heavy trucks went across it. In 1995 proposals were made to open it to pedestrians or to build a new bridge for pedestrians. They were defeated by two vested interests: the City of New York and the private operator of the only boat service to the island, the Circle Line. The supposedly inadequate bridge is still in use but closed to the public.
There is a "Wall of Honor" outside of the main building. There is a myth that it lists all of the immigrants processed there. It is actually a wall giving people the opportunity to make a donation to honor any immigrant into the United States. As of 2006, the wall lists 700,000 names spanning 400 years of immigration.
Boston based architecture firm Finegold Alexander + Associates Inc, together with a New York architectural firm, designed the restoration and adaptive use of the Beaux Arts Main Building, one of the most symbolically important structures in American history. A construction budget of $150 million was required for this significant restoration. The building was opened to the public on September 10, 1990.
Ellis Island attracted the imagination of filmmakers as long ago as the silent era. Early films featuring the station include Traffic in Souls (1913) The Yellow Passport (1916), starring Clara Kimbell Young My Boy (1921), starring Jackie Coogan Frank Capra's The Strong Man (1926), starring Harry Langdon We Americans (1928), starring John Boles Ellis Island (1936), starring Donald Cook Gateway (1938), starring Don Ameche and Exile Express (1939), which starred Anna Sten.
More recently, the island was a scene used in Hitch, a motion picture starring Will Smith. He and Eva Mendes take a jet ski to the island and explore the building. Also, the movie, "Golden Door," culminates with scenes on the island.
The IMAX 3D movie, Across the Sea of Time, about the New York immigrant experience, incorporates both modern footage and historical photographs of Ellis Island.
Ellis Island as a port of entry to the United States of America is described in detail in Mottel the Cantor's Son by Sholom Aleichem. It is also the place where Don Corleone was held as an immigrant boy in The Godfather Part II, where he was marked with an encircled X.
In the film X-Men, a UN summit held on the island is targeted by Magneto, who attempts to artificially change all the delegates present.
The opening scene of Brother From Another Planet takes place on Ellis Island.
A recent Italian movie called The Golden Door (directed by Emanuele Crialese) takes place largely at Ellis Island.
Federal jurisdiction and state sovereignty dispute
Overview before restorationOn October 15, 1965, Ellis Island was proclaimed a part of Statue of Liberty National Monument, which is managed by the National Park Service. The island is on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. During the colonial period, however, New York had taken possession, and New Jersey had acquiesced in that action. In a compact between the two states, approved by U.S. Congress in 1834, New Jersey therefore agreed that New York would continue to have exclusive jurisdiction over the island.
Thereafter, however, the federal government expanded the island by landfill, so that it could accommodate the immigration station that opened in 1890 (and closed in November 1954). Landfilling continued until 1934. Nine-tenths of the current area is artificial island that did not exist at the time of the interstate compact.
New Jersey contended that the new extensions were part of New Jersey, since they were not part of the previous cession. New Jersey eventually filed suit to establish its jurisdiction, leading New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dramatically to remark that his father, an Italian who immigrated through Ellis Island, never intended to go to New Jersey.
The dispute eventually reached the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 1998 that New Jersey had jurisdiction over all portions of the island created after the original compact was approved. This caused several immediate problems: some buildings, for instance, fell into the territory of both states. New Jersey and New York soon agreed to share claims to the island. It remains wholly a Federal property, however, and none of this legal maneuvering has resulted in either state taking any fiscal or physical responsibility for the maintenance, preservation, or improvement of any of the historic properties that make the island so significant in the first place.