Ellis Island was not always the threshold of the immigrant dream. As a matter of fact, Ellis Island was only an immigrant processing station from 1892 until 1924. For only thirty years of immigrations past was Ellis Island actively processing immigrants, yet it remains in the minds of many as a symbol for the great, life changing journey that is the immigrant process.
Let’s look at a little history of Ellis Island. Ellis Island was once nothing more than a small plot of land, barely visible during high tide. In the late 1700’s, a man named Samuel Ellis owned the bank of land, on which he built a tavern. After his passing, his family sold the plot of land to the New York State government, who in turn sold the Island to the federal government for use as a fort during the War of 1812. With the construction of the New York City subway lines, the excess dirt helped to bring Ellis Island to double its original size, approximately the size of the current museum.Upon that Island, the federal government constructed an immigration station to receive the great influx of immigrants. Sadly, five years after its opening, the building burnt to the ground. The government then agreed to reopen the station under the condition that the next building set upon the island was fire proof. In 1900, the new Ellis Island was opened, one of the first fireproof buildings ever. The building remained active as an immigration station, but also was used by the armed forces during the First World War. Finally, in 1924, the immigrant processing procedure was transferred to over seas consulates, and Ellis Island saw little immigrant action after that. Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center for alien enemies until the building was finally closed in 1954. The island and all its structures was left for decay until the late 1980’s, when the building was restored to serve as an immigration museum, opened in 1990. Since then, the Island has served as a major tourist attraction for those looking for a glimpse into the past of what makes America the melting pot it is famously known for.
Immigrants saved money for years just to be able to afford the boat ticket. Depending on the time of the year and the country of departure, the steerage class tickets could range from US $12 to $60 per person (approximately $200 to $1,000 present value). After acquiring the tickets, the families went through a medical and legal screening before boarding the ship. In the larger ships, the steerage class was located next to the engines and on the lowest inhabitable floor. The passengers slept in crowded rooms with rows of bunk beds, with up to six bunks from floor to ceiling. Being close to the engines, the rooms were really hot and it had a strong scent of sweat, fuel, and smoke. The trip ranged from one to four weeks depending on your port of embarkation. Due to the limited deck space, most of the steerage class did not get a chance to go on deck or receive any fresh air for the entire journey. What would you have done to make the most out of the steerage class voyage?
When the immigrants reached Ellis Island, they would check their luggage at the entry and then proceed to the Great Hall for inspection. The baggage check caused some confusion among the non-English speaking immigrants since most of their valuable possessions were in their luggage. Immigrants climbed a very high flight of stairs to get to the Great Hall. Most immigrants thought that their inspection began at the hall but instead it began when they took that first step up the stairs. Doctors at the top of the stairs inspected the immigrants as they came up, checking for conditions such as asthma, physical disability, and mental retardation by signs such as shortness of breath, limping, and excessive gazing respectively. Do you feel that you would have successfully made it up the stairs after a tiring journey?
At the top of the stairs, the doctors continued their medical examination checking for signs of communicable diseases. On busy days, this exam was done in approximately six seconds. The doctors chalked the results onto the immigrant’s shirt or jacket. Some of the clever immigrants who had a negative marking would erase the chalk mark or flip their jackets to avoid detainment. How long do you think it took the immigration officials to catch onto the jacket flipping trick?
Those suspected of having a mental disease were taken for further evaluation. The psychologists used puzzle and mimicry tests since the tests neither had to be explained through an interpreter nor require the immigrants to read or write. The immigrants were evaluated by comparing the time they took to complete the test with the time mentally healthy person took to complete it. The evaluation normally started with the relatively simple Sequin Formboard test and would gradually increase in difficulty. What percentage of immigrants were suspected of having a mental disease?
The immigration officers asked the immigrants the same questions that they were asked upon departure. The initial responses were recorded on the ship’s manifest, and the officers would use this to verify the immigrants’ responses. Immigrants were asked up to 29 questions including how much money they had on them, if they were polygamists, and if they had a job already lined up. If they passed this aspect of the screening, they were free to go. The entire process would take between three to five hours per immigrant.
The final journey was going down the “stairs of separation.” The stairs had three sections: one for immigrants going to New Jersey, one for those going to New York, and third for those who were detained. This is a point of happiness and sometimes of sorrow, since most families would be reunited after the lengthy process and others would find out that their loved ones were being detained.
If the immigrants failed the medical screening, they would be sent to the Ellis Island Hospital where they can be nursed to good health. If they failed the legal screening, they would be detained in a dormitory until they can provide proof that they are legally fit to enter the country.
The dormitories were similar to the sleeping conditions on the ship. Each dormitory can accommodate approximately sixty men by using metal bunk beds, with three to four bunks from roof to ceiling. The beds had a thin layer of canvas in the middle and the immigrants were given a blanket at night to cover them. There were three sinks in the room and one bathroom. After many complains of the terrible sleeping conditions, Ellis Island later switched to twin beds with mattresses. In some circumstances, entire families would be allowed to stay in the same dormitory. If your family member was detained, would you leave them there or stay at your own expense?
As someone whose roots are deeply settled in Ellis Island, my journey there was one of self discovery. It was very interesting getting to not only stand in the same rooms as my ancestors, but to have the process they went through vividly described to me by my knowledgeable guide. From the moment you step into the baggage room (the entrance to Ellis Island), you are met by an unparalleled wealth of information about immigration. One thing I found most interesting was a tree of words found on the first floor. This tree had a variety of words we use in our everyday vocabulary listed beside the country from which it originated.
Overall, I truly enjoyed my trip to Ellis Island. I think for many American’s the ability to trace your history back to a single person walking through those sterile halls is a gift.
This was my first trip to Ellis Island. So part of me still felt like a tourist. When I went to Clinton castle, that’s where the ferry for Ellis island leaves from, I was greeted with a crowd of about 200 people and a line as long as about a mile. After about 45mins of waiting in line and security check, I finally proceeded to the ferry.
The ferry ride was beautiful. At one point, I could see Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey and Ellis Island at the same time. I was excited on seeing the statue of liberty up close. However, I did not get off there. On reaching Ellis Island, what first struck me was the architecture. On entering the building, I saw various models describing immigration patterns and the population of each ethnicity as it stands today.
I took a guided tour of the museum. Initially, I came to know how Ellis Island grew and became such an important port of entry. The point, which transformed me to another world, was when I started experiencing what the immigrants would feel like when they first arrived into the country.
They were subjected to medical and legal examinations. Men were separated form women and children. So, an entire family was broken up, none of them having a clue whether the other would make it through the process or not.
The medical tests involved mental and physical examinations. Immigrants were observed as they climbed stairs. If they would be out of breathe or tired, they would be marked for a more detailed examination. If the immigrants looked too dazed or confused, they would be pulled aside for mental examinations. If the immigrants were found to be ill, then they would be sent to island hospital to be treated before they would be permitted to enter the country. The physical tests were traumatic to some immigrants specially woman, who were now being touched by men other than their husbands.
The legal process involved basic questions such as family background, name, and date of birth and reasons for entering the country. After the legal process, they were lead to the “Stairs of separation”, where the stairs through which you were lead determined your faith. If you were lead through the middle row, you were among the 20% of the immigrants who have been detained for further questioning.
The dormitory condition for those who were detained was absolutely inhumane. Imagine being in close quarters with someone who doesn’t even speak your language.
The ferry back to New York was a different experience. I was at the front of the ship and as the ferry moved towards Battery Park, I felt like what an immigrant would have felt those days. Manhattan was not a concrete jungle then, but I do feel that it looked as intimidating as it does today. It was a wonderful experience and I am glad that I took this trip.