Island is a place of names. Here millions of immigrants called out
theirs for the first time - proud names, long names, names that
would twist the tongue - before they stepped ashore onto America's
soil. To most, Ellis Island was an Isle of Hope, a brief stopping
point on the way to a better life. To an unfortunate few, it became
an Isle of Tears, a place of detention and possible rejection.
need for an immigration depot was first realized in 1847 when a severe
potato famine in Ireland sent thousands of starving immigrants streaming
into New England and New York. As immigration to the United States increased,
state and federal governments sought a way to regulate the flow. Along
with their bundled possessions newcomers to America brought skilled
hands and able bodies. Some saw this as a boon to the work force and
economy of the nation. Others saw immigrants as merely hungry mouths
and charity cases which would drain the U. S. Treasury.
1880's Congress drafted a flurry of legislation - laws that became benchmarks
against which an immigrant was measured during the inspection progress.
The first general Federal Immigration Law denied entrance to "any convict,
lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself
without becoming a public charge." In 1891 this law was expanded to
include the expulsion of paupers, prostitutes, polygamists, or "persons
suffering from a loath-some or a dangerous contagious disease." While
these laws were meant to protect the immigrant as well as the American
citizen, they had little effect in deterring swindlers, runners, and
labor brokers from exploiting new arrivals after their arrival. In 1890
the federal government began construction of a new depot - preferably
on an island site, where an immigrant could be protected, guided, and
if needed, easily detained.
Island was selected even though the surrounding waters were too shallow
to dock boats of any draft there. Workers doubled the island's size
by using ballast from incoming ships as landfill. A ferry slip was dredged
and on New Year's Day of 1892, fifteen-year-old Annie Moore from County
Cork, Ireland became the first immigrant to enter the Ellis Island station.
Island circa 1905. Ferry boats shuttled the immigrants from steamships
directly to Ellis Island's Main Registry Building
initial praise, the station did not age well. Five years and 1.5 million
immigrants later the depot showed signs of hard use and disrepair. In
1897 a fire originating in the furnace room caused the depot to burn
to the ground. No one was injured, but a large number of immigration
records were lost, pressuring the federal government to rebuild the
depot with fireproof materials. The new station was designed to process
only 500,000 immigrants annually because officials assumed the facilities
would be more than adequate. No one could have guessed at the huge number
of immigrants that were about to knock on America's door.
first day of operation in 1900, 2,251 people were inspected on Ellis
Island - immigrants "ranging in age from three months to three score
and ten." In just six years, however, the number increased from 389,000
in 1901 to over 1 million in 1907, America's peak immigration year.
the great steamships of the early 20th century sailed into New York
Harbor, the faces of a thousand nations were on board. There were Russian
Jews, Irish farmers, Greeks in kilts and slippers, Italians with sharp
moustaches, Cossacks with fierce swords, English in short knickers,
and Arabs in long robes. The old world lay behind them. Ahead was a
new life. Gone were the monarchies and kings, the systems of caste and
peasantry, of famine and poverty. But also left behind were friends
and family, as well as tradition and customs generations old.
slid into the silt and whistles blew, this multitude clambered up from
the steerage decks to imprint on their minds forever their first glimpse
of America. In the shadow of all the activity of the tugboats and dockhands,
were the red brick buildings of Ellis Island. The largest building rose
over 140 feet into the air. This was the building where five thousand
people a day were processed. Men usually emigrated first, to find jobs
and housing. Later they would send for their wives, children, and parents
as part of the largest mass movement of people in world history. Close
to 60 million people sought new opportunities during the 19th and early
20th centuries. In the hundred years previous to 1924, when the country's
open-door abruptly shut, 34 million immigrants landed on American soil.
influx of new arrivals started in the mid 1840's when Europe felt the
throes of a bitter famine. This first wave of immigrants - primarily
Northern Europeans from Ireland, England, Germany and Scandinavia -
fled starvation, feudal governments, and the social upheaval brought
about by the Industrial Revolution. A second wave of immigrants streamed
out of Southern and Eastern Europe from 1890-1924. Along with fleeing
the burden of high taxes, poverty, and overpopulation, these "new" immigrants
were also victims of oppression and religious persecution. Jews living
in Romania, Russia, and Poland were being driven from their homes by
a series of pogroms, riots and laws enforced by a Czarist government.
Similarly the Croats and Serbs in Hungary, the Poles in Germany, and
the Irish persecuted under English rule all saw America as a land of
freedom and opportunity.
1890's steam-powered ships replaced sailing vessels and cut the time
of an Atlantic crossing from three months to two weeks. Large shipping
lines such as Cunard and White Star competed for the immigrants who
were seen as a profitable cargo. The steamships could accommodate as
many as 2,000 passengers in steerage, so-called because it was located
on the lower decks where the steering mechanism of the sailing ships
had once been housed. These long narrow compartments were divided into
separate dormitories for single men, single women, and families. Jammed
with metal-framed berths three bunks high, the air in steerage became
rank with the heavy odor of spoiled food, sea-sickness, and unwashed
bodies. There was little privacy, and the lack of adequate toilet facilities
made it difficult to keep clean. A Russian Jew recalled that " the atmosphere
was so thick and dense with smoke and bodily odors that your head itched,
and when you scratched your head - you got lice on your hands."
many ships had replaced steerage with four- and six-berth third class
cabins. These vessels served meals in dining rooms with long tables
set with dishes and utensils. However, on many of the older ships, passengers
still ate meals from a tin mess kit while sitting on deck or in the
hot, cramped steerage dormitories. The Italian lines served pasta and
wine, and many shipping lines provided kosher food for Jewish passengers,
but not all ships catered to ethnic or religious tastes. Cases of malnutrition
were not uncommon. Standard fare consisted of potatoes, soup, eggs,
fish, stringy meat, prunes - and whatever food the immigrants carried
time the steamships sailed into New York, the first and second class
passengers had already been inspected and cleared to land by immigration
officials who came aboard. However, steerage passengers were not afforded
such privileges and their first steps on the mainland were brief.
They were directed helter-skelter onto ferries which shuttled them to
Ellis Island. These vessels were little better than open air barges,
freezing in the winter, sweltering hot in summer, and lacking toilet
facilities and lifesaving equipment. Deaths caused by exposure to cold
were not uncommon. A Public Health official estimated that of the children
suffering from measles when they arrived, 30% died because of their
trip across the harbor. On busy days the immigrants were imprisoned
on these vessels for hours while they waited to disembark and be ferried
to Ellis Island. Sometimes new arrivals had to wait in steerage for
days, prolonging the miserable journey.
at Ellis Island. 1907. Credit: American
Memory collections from the Library of Congress.
they landed, the immigrants had numbered tags pinned on their clothes
which indicated the manifest page and line number on which their names
appeared. These numbers were later used by immigration inspectors to
cross-reference immigrants about their right to land. Though relatively
few immigrants who landed at Ellis Island were denied entry, the 2%
that were excluded often equaled over a thousand people a month during
peak immigration years. Greeted with pointing fingers and unintelligible
commands, the new arrivals formed a line which stretched from the Ellis
Island dock into the Baggage Room of the main building, winding its
way up to the second floor where the immigrants were met by a team of
doctors and inspectors who would decide which way the Golden Door would
swing. Jostling three abreast, the immigrants made their way up a steep
flight of stairs and into the great hall of the Registry Room. The inspection
process had begun, although many did not know it.
the moving line for signs of illness, Public Health doctors looked to
see if anyone wheezed, coughed, shuffled, or limped as they climbed
the steep stairs. Children were asked their name to make sure they weren't
deaf or dumb, and those that looked over two-years-old were taken from
their mothers' arms and made to walk. As the line moved forward, doctors
had only a few seconds to examine each immigrant, checking for sixty
symptoms, from anemia to varicose veins, which might indicate a wide
variety of diseases, disabilities and physical conditions. Of primary
concern were cholera, scalp and nail fungus, insanity, and mental impairments.
In 1907, legislation further barred immigrants suffering from tuberculosis,
epilepsy, and the physically disabled. The disease which resulted in
the most exclusions was trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection
that could cause blindness and death. At that time, the disease was
common in Southern and Eastern Europe, but almost unknown in the U.S.
Doctors checked for trachoma by turning the eyelid inside out with their
fingers, a hairpin, or a button-hook to look for inflammation on the
inner eyelid - an extremely painful experience. The "button-hook men"
were the most dreaded officials on Ellis Island.
inspection, those immigrants who appeared sick or were suffering from
a contagious disease were marked with blue chalk and detained for further
medical examination. The sick were taken to Ellis Island hospital for
observation and care, and once recovered, could proceed with their legal
inspection. Those with incurable or disabling ailments were excluded
and returned to their port of departure at the expense of the steamship
line on which they arrived. In an attempt to discourage steamship companies
from transporting ill, disabled or impoverished passengers, an immigration
law of 1903 imposed a $100 fine for every excluded passenger.
examination, Ellis Island. Credit: American
Memory collections from the Library of Congress.
inspectors developed a letter code to indicate further examination,
and roughly every two out of ten immigrants received mystifying chalk
marks. This alphabet of ailments ranged from Pg for pregnant to K for
hernia and Ft for feet. Those suspected of having feeble minds were
chalked with an X, and along with those marked for physical ailments,
about nine out of every hundred immigrants were detained for mental
examination and further questioning. Usually this con-sisted of standard
intelligence tests in which immigrants were asked to solve simple arithmetic
problems, count backwards from twenty, or complete a puzzle. In an attempt
to deal with immigrants' cultural differences, Ellis Island's doctors
developed their own tests which allowed them to base their decision
on problem solving, behavior, attitude, and the immigrant's ability
to acquire knowledge. Requiring immigrants to copy geometric shapes,
for instance, was only useful for testing those who had some schooling
and were used to holding a pencil.
After passing the line inspection immigrants were waved forward toward
the main part of the Registry Room. There they entered a maze of open
passageways and metal railings which divided the entire floor. As crowded
as a country town on market day, the Great Hall was "a place of Babel"
where all languages of the world seemed to cry out at once. At the far
end of Registry Hall the legal inspectors stood behind tall desks, assisted
by interpreters fluent in major languages and any number of obscure
dialects. Although the interrogation that immigrants were to face lasted
only a matter of minutes, it took an average of five hours to pass through
the inspection process at Ellis Island.
starched collars and heavy serge jackets, the inspectors verified the
29 bits of information already contained on the manifest sheet. Family
names were recorded with care - especially if they were spelled Andrjuljawierjus,
Grzyszczyszn or Soutsoghianopoulos. Firing questions at the immigrants,
the inspector asked them their age, occupation, marital status, and
destination in an attempt to determine their social, economic and moral
at Ellis Island. Credit: American Memory
collections from the Library of Congress.
by American welfare agencies that claimed to be overwhelmed by requests
for aid from impoverished immigrants, the exclusion of those "liable
to become a public charge" became a cornerstone of immigration policy
as early as 1882. The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 also excluded
all immigrants who took a job in exchange for passage. These laws presented
the immigrant with a delicate task of convincing the legal inspectors
that they were strong, intelligent and resourceful enough to find work
easily, without admitting that a relative had a job waiting for them.
anti-immigration forces succeeded in pressuring the government to impose
a literacy test as a further means of restricting immigration. The law
required all immigrants sixteen years or older to read a forty-word
passage in their native language. Most immgrants had to read biblical
translations. Working from 9 am to 7 pm, seven days a week, each inspector
questioned 400-500 immigrants a day. Those who failed to prove they
were "clearly and beyond a doubt entitled to land" were detained for
a hearing before the Board of Special Inquiry. As immigrants had no
legal right to enter the U.S., there could be no lawyer present at this
hearing, but friends and relatives could testify on the immigrant's
behalf. The Board reviewed about 70,000 cases a year, admitting five
out of every six detainees.
with medical detentions and immigrants facing a hearing from the Board,
unescorted women and children were detained until their safety was assured
through the arrival of a telegram, letter, or a pre-paid ticket from
a waiting relative. Immigration officials refused to send single women
into the streets alone, nor could they leave with a man not related
to them. Fiancées, reunited with their intended husbands, often
married on the spot.
inspection, immigrants descended from the Registry Room down the "Stairs
of Separation," so-called because they marked the parting of the way
for many family and friends with different destinations. Immigrants
were directed toward the railroad ticket office and trains to points
west, or to the island's hospital and detention rooms. During its half-century
of operation over 3,500 immigrants died at Ellis Island and over 350
babies were born. There
were three suicides. While doctors, nurses, inspectors, interpreters,
matrons, and other staff employed during the station's peak years generally
followed the directive to treat immigrants with "kindness and consideration,"
the process of inspection and detention - and the frightening prospect
of exclusion - remained overwhelming.
Island became too costly to run - in 1953 the island's staff numbered
roughly 250, to serve approximately 230 detained immigrants. The doors
finally closed on November 19, 1954. Its last resident, detainee Arne
Peterson, a seaman who overstayed his shore leave, was granted parole
and ferried to the mainland.
of Ellis Island's Main Building was the most extensive of any single
building in the US. It took eight years to complete at a cost of $156,000,000
and was opened September 10, 1990. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum
is the fourth largest in New York and receives two million visitors
annually. The museum incorporates the American Immigrant Wall of Honor,
a listing of over 400,000 immigrant's names displayed along Ellis Island's
seawall; it is the largest wall of names in the world. (I submitted
the names of my maternal and paternal grandfathers to be listed on the
Wall, and recently a friend who visited Ellis Island found the names
and photographed them for me. JP)
from "Ellis Island" by B. Colin Hamblin
photos courtesy of June