Ellis 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.

The 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.

In the 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.Ellis Island

Tiny Ellis 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.

Ellis Island circa 1905. Ferry boats shuttled the immigrants from steamships directly to Ellis Island's Main Registry Building

Despite 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.

On the 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.

When 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.

As anchors 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.

The earliest 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.

By the 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."

By 1910 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 from home.

By the 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.Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island 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.

Arriving at Ellis Island. 1907. Credit: American Memory collections from the Library of Congress.

When 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.Ellis Island documents

Ellis Island photosScanning 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.

Awaiting examination at Ellis IslandDuring 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.

Awaiting examination, Ellis Island. Credit: American Memory collections from the Library of Congress.

Medical 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.Immigrants at Ellis Island 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.

Wearing 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 fitness.

Immigrants at Ellis Island. Credit: American Memory collections from the Library of Congress.

Influenced 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.

In 1917 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.

Along 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.

After 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. Ellis Island Main BuildingThere 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.

Ellis 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.Wall of Honor

Restoration 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)



Excerpted from "Ellis Island" by B. Colin Hamblin

Color photos courtesy of June Pelo

June Pelo




Immigration Through Ellis Island YouTube
Island of Hope - Island of Tears; Charles Guggenheim; National Park Service; AVA15996VNB1 1992 (1989); From 1892-1954, Ellis Island was the port of entry for millions of European immigrants. Fascinating archival footage tells the moving story of families with dreams of opportunity, leaving their homes with what they could carry. CINE - Golden Eagle Award 1990; Columbus International Film and Video Festival - Chris Award 1990; Earthwatch; Institute Film Award - 1991; National; Educational Film & Video Festival - Bronze Apple 1991. Director: Charles Guggenheim; Producer: National Park Service; Creative Commons license: Public Domain; Credits; Uploaded by Public.Resource.Org under a joint venture with NTIS. Rebroadcast of "Island of Hope - Island of Tears" is made possible on the Internet by a grant from Joseph McFadden of Philadelphia. Between 1892 and the early 1950s, nearly 15 million people streamed through Ellis Island in search of a new life. Here are the stories of those extraordinary immigrants, largely in their own poignant words. Coming primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, and from widely diverse backgrounds, the émigrés represented in this remarkable volume recount their adventures with dignity, wit, and unflagging honesty. From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor. Ellis Island is located in the upper bay just off the New Jersey coast, within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Through the years, this gateway to the new world was enlarged from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres by landfill supposedly obtained from the ballast of ships, excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system and elsewhere. Before being designated as the site of one of the first Federal immigration station by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, Ellis Island had a varied history. The local Indian tribes had called it "Kioshk" or Gull Island. Due to its rich and abundant oyster beds and plentiful and profitable shad runs, it was known as Oyster Island for many generations during the Dutch and English colonial periods. By the time Samuel Ellis became the island's private owner in the 1770's, the island had been called Kioshk, Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and Anderson's Island. In this way, Ellis Island developed from a sandy island that barely rose above the high tide mark, into a hanging site for pirates, a harbor fort, ammunition and ordinance depot named Fort Gibson, and finally into an immigration station. Despite the island's reputation as an "Island of Tears", the vast majority of immigrants were treated courteously and respectfully, and were free to begin their new lives in America after only a few short hours on Ellis Island. Only two percent of the arriving immigrants were excluded from entry. The two main reasons why an immigrant would be excluded were if a doctor diagnosed that the immigrant had a contagious disease that would endanger the public health or if a legal inspector thought the immigrant was likely to become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Ellis Island was opened to the public on a limited basis between 1976 and 1984. Starting in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a major restoration, the largest historic restoration in U.S. history. The $160 million dollar project was funded by donations made to the Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. in partnership with the National Park Service. The Main Building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Today, the museum receives almost 2 million visitors annually. Creative Commons license: Public Domain