Historical Notes: Ellis Island

The history of immigrants entering the United States, information on importance of this treasured landmark.

America has become the melting pot of the world. In many schools and neighborhoods there probably are first generation immigrants that have come from countries like India, Vietnam or even Russia. Your own family may have started out from one of those far away places many years ago.

These days most immigrants no longer enter the United States through the Port of New York, like they did for so many years in the past. Like my family and I did in September of 1951.

Today the enormous immigrant depot is the beautifully restored and popular tourist attraction, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Located in New York Harbor, 2 million tourists a year take the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Ferry, to visit it. Over 100 million Americans-40 percent of the population-can trace their ancestry in the United States to some man, woman, or child who passed from ship to Registry Room at this famous landmark, before beginning their new lives in this new country. My children are among those 100 million Americans.

The House committee chose Ellis Island as the site of the new immigrant station for the Port of New York in 1890. The original buildings were constructed of Georgia pine, and were 400 feet long and 150 feet wide, with numerous smaller buildings. There was a dormitory for immigrant detainee's, a restaurant, kitchens, a baggage station, and a bathhouse. Officially opening in 1892, that year Ellis Island welcomed 445,987 incoming immigrants. A fire in 1897 destroyed most of the pine buildings at Ellis Island, but fortunately, no one perished in that fire, and it was all rebuilt. Between the years 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants were processed at the Island.

The processing took many hours, even days. Immigrants that showed any signs of illness, went through a barrage of medical exams. Many of them were turned back at this point, for they only admitted able bodied, healthy people into the land known as America. Finally, after the hours of questioning, probing, and waiting, the lucky ones that passed the tests, were released to travel on to their new destinations, to begin their new lives.

By the time my family and I arrived at Ellis Island in 1951, the immigration depot was in its last, waning years, to be closed down for good just three years later. Back in its hey day, in the early 1900's, it had processed millions of immigrants. But later in the 1950's, the General Services Administration tried to sell the, now run down, island as surplus Federal property. However, no bid was high enough, and no sale was made. So the doors were locked, the buildings remained empty and often vandalized for over 10 years. Fortunately, concerns about this vital part of American history led to the inclusion of Ellis Island as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. Hundreds of private citizens donated millions of dollars in the campaign to preserve the Island, and it was finally restored to its former grandeur and opened to the public in September of 1990.

They say that restoration of Ellis Island's Main Building was the most extensive of any single building in the United States. It is the fourth largest museum in New York City, exhibiting over 5000 artifacts and photographs that trace the history of the Island and the poignant story of the immigrants who entered America through its golden door.

Many years later, I paid a visit to Ellis Island. I toured the Baggage Room, and the Great Hall, and the Registry Room, and I listened to some of the voices of immigrants in the Oral History Library, and read many of the names listed among the 420,000 entries at the Immigrant Wall of Honor. Visiting it was quite an emotional thing for me, and anyone who has the chance, would find it a valuable, touching experience.

When I was finally boarding the Ferry to leave the Island, I glanced back at the majestic building and at the Statue of Liberty in the backdrop, and I thanked my lucky stars that they are a part of my, and my children's, heritage.

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