Ellis Island, located in Upper New York Bay between New York and New Jersey, was the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States as the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. The island was greatly expanded with land reclamation between 1892 and 1934. Before that, the much smaller original island was the site of Fort Gibson and later a naval magazine. The island was made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, and has hosted a museum of immigration since 1990. Long considered part of New York, a 1998 United States Supreme Court decision found that most of the island is in New Jersey. The south side of the island, home to the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, is closed to the general public and the object of restoration efforts spearheaded by Save Ellis Island.
Geography and access
Ellis Island, largely artificially created through landfill, is situated on the New Jersey side of Upper New York Bay. The natural portion of the island, an exclave of New York City, is surrounded by rest of the island in Jersey City; the island is located east of Liberty State Park and north of Liberty Island. Largely created through land reclamation, the island covers a land area of 27.5 acres (11.1Â ha), most of which is part of New Jersey. The 2.74-acre (1.11Â ha) natural island and contiguous areas comprise the 3.3 acres (1Â ha) that are part of New York.
The entire island, much of which is closed to the general public, has been owned and administered by the U.S. federal government since 1808 and has been operated by the National Park Service since 1965.
Since September 11, 2001, the island is guarded by patrols of the United States Park Police Marine Patrol Unit. Public access is by ferry from either Communipaw Terminal in Liberty State Park or from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. The ferry operator, Hornblower Cruises and Events, also provides service to the nearby Statue of Liberty. A bridge built for transporting materials and personnel during restoration projects connects Ellis Island with Liberty State Park, but is not open to the public. Proposals made in 1995 to use it or replace it with a new bridge for pedestrians were opposed by the city of New York and the private ferry operator at that time.
The island was closed to the public after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The island was re-opened to the public and the museum partially re-opened on October 28, 2013 after major renovations. While additional floors and areas of the museum were re-opened in 2014, it is not expected to be fully re-opened until the end of 2015 at the earliest due to continuing repairs.
Ownership and sovereignty
Originally much of the west shore of Upper New York Bay consisted of large tidal flats which hosted vast oyster banks, a major source of food for the Lenape population who lived in the area prior to the arrival of Dutch settlers. There were several islands which were not completely submerged at high tide, although most of them were submerged. Three of them (later to be known as Liberty, Black Tom and Ellis) were given the name Oyster Islands by the settlers of New Netherland, the first European colony in the Mid-Atlantic states. The oyster beds would remain a major source of food for nearly three centuries. Landfilling to build the railyards of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey would eventually obliterate the beds, engulf one island and bring the shoreline much closer to the others. During the Colonial period Little Oyster Island was known as Dyre's, then Bucking Island. In the 1760s, after some pirates were hanged from one of the island's scrubby trees, it became known as Gibbet Island. It was acquired by Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker possibly from Wales, around the time of the American Revolution. In 1785 he unsuccessfully attempted to sell the island:
TO BE SOLD
By Samuel Ellis, no. 1, Greenwich Street, at the north river near the Bear Market, That pleasant situated Island called Oyster Island, lying in New York Bay, near Powle's Hook, together with all its improvements which are considerable;...
The State of New York leased the island in 1794 and started to fortify it in 1795. Ownership was in question and legislation was passed for acquisition by condemnation in 1807 and then ceded to the United States in 1808. Shortly thereafter the War Department established a 20-gun battery, magazine, and barracks. From 1808 until 1814 it was a federal arsenal. At the end of the War of 1812, Fort Gibson was built and the island remained a military post for nearly 80 years before it was selected to be a federal immigration station.
State sovereignty dispute
The circumstances which led to an exclave of New York being located within New Jersey began in the colonial era, after the British takeover of New Netherland in 1664. An unusual clause in the colonial land grant outlined the territory that the proprietors of New Jersey would receive as being "westward of Long Island, and Manhitas Island and bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson's river", rather than at the river's midpoint, as was common in other colonial charters.
Attempts were made as early as 1804 to resolve the status of the state line. The City of New York claimed the right to regulate trade on all the waters. This was contested in Gibbons v. Ogden (22 U.S. 1) (1824), which decided that the regulation of interstate commerce fell under the authority of the federal government, thus influencing competition in the newly developing steam ferry service in New York Harbor.
In 1830, New Jersey planned to bring suit to clarify the border, but the case was never heard. The matter was resolved with a compact between the states, ratified by U.S. Congress in 1834, which set the boundary line between them as the middle of the Hudson River and New York Harbor. This was later confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in other cases which also expounded on the compact.
The federal government, which had bought the island in 1808, began expanding the island by landfill, to accommodate the immigration station opened in 1892. Landfilling continued in stages 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 original island. In 1956, after the 1954 closing of the U.S. immigration station, the then Mayor of Jersey City, Bernard J. Berry, commandeered a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and led a contingent of New Jersey officials on an expedition to claim the island. In 1997, the state filed suit to establish its jurisdiction, leading New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to remark dramatically that his father, an Italian who immigrated through Ellis Island, never intended to go to New Jersey. The border was redrawn using information based on studies using geographic information science.
The dispute eventually reached the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in New Jersey v. New York 523 U.S. 767 (1998), that New Jersey had jurisdiction over all portions of the island created after the original compact was approved (effectively, more than 80% of the island's present land). This caused several immediate confusions: some buildings, for instance, fell into the territory of both states. New Jersey and New York soon agreed to share jurisdiction of the island. It remains wholly a Federal property, however, and these legal decisions do not result in either state taking any fiscal or physical responsibility for the maintenance, preservation, or improvement of any of the historic properties.
The ruling had no effect on the status of Liberty Island, 4.17 acres (1.69Â ha) of which was created by land reclamation.
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.
Immigrant Inspection Station
In the 35 years before Ellis Island opened, over eight million immigrants arriving in New York had been processed by New York State officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in lower Manhattan, just across the bay. The federal government assumed control of immigration on April 18, 1890, and Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct Americaâs first Federal immigration station on Ellis Island. Artesian wells were dug, and landfill was hauled in from incoming shipsâ ballast and from construction of New York Cityâs subway tunnels, which doubled the size of Ellis Island to over six acres. While the building was under construction, the Barge Office nearby at the Battery was used for immigrant processing.
The first federal immigrant inspection station was an enormous three-story-tall structure, with outbuildings, built of Georgia pine, containing all of the amenities that were thought to be necessary. It opened with celebration on January 1, 1892. Three large ships landed on the first day and 700 immigrants passed over the docks. Almost 450,000 immigrants were processed at the station during its first year. On June 15, 1897, a fire of unknown origin, possibly caused by faulty wiring, turned the wooden structures on Ellis Island into ashes. No loss of life was reported, but most of the immigration records dating back to 1855 were destroyed. About 1.5 million immigrants had been processed at the first building during its five years of use. Plans were immediately made to build a new, fireproof immigration station on Ellis Island. During the construction period, passenger arrivals were again processed at the Barge Office.
Edward Lippincott Tilton and William A. Boring won the 1897 competition to design the first phase, including the Main Building (1897â"1900), Kitchen and Laundry Building (1900â"01), Main Powerhouse (1900â"01), and the Main Hospital Building (1900â"01).
The present main structure was designed in French Renaissance Revival style and built of red brick with limestone trim. When it opened on December 17, 1900, officials estimated 5,000 immigrants per day would be processed. However, the facilities proved to be able to barely handle the flood of immigrants that arrived in the years just before World War I. Writer Louis Adamic came to America from Slovenia in southeastern Europe in 1913 and described the night 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". The facility was so large that the dining room could seat 1,000 people.
After its opening, Ellis Island was expanded with landfill and additional structures were built. By the time it closed on November 12, 1954, twelve million immigrants had been processed by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration. It is estimated that 10.5 million immigrants departed for points across the United States from the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, located just across a narrow strait. Others would have used one of the other terminals along the North River (Hudson River) at that time. The peak year for immigration at Ellis Island was 1907, with 1,004,756 immigrants processed. The all-time daily high occurred on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants arrived. After the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies, the only immigrants to pass through the station were those who had problems with their immigration paperwork, displaced persons, and war refugees. Today, over 100 million Americansâ"or something over about one-third of the populationâ"can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country.
Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island's hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered âlikely to become a public charge.â About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. Ellis Island was sometimes known as âThe Island of Tearsâ or âHeartbreak Islandâ because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs and kisses.
During World War I, the German sabotage of the Black Tom Wharf ammunition depot damaged buildings on Ellis Island. The repairs included the current barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Main Hall.
Detention and deportation station
After 1924, Ellis Island became primarily a detention and deportation processing station.
During and immediately following World War II, Ellis Island was used to intern German merchant mariners and âenemy aliensââ"American civilians and immigrants detained for fear of spying, sabotage, and other fifth column activity. In December 1941, Ellis Island held 279 Japanese, 248 Germans, and 81 Italians removed from the East Coast. Unlike other wartime immigration detention stations, Ellis Island was designated as a permanent holding facility and was used to hold foreign nationals throughout the war. A total of 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese would be ultimately detained at Ellis Island. It was also a processing center for returning sick or wounded U.S. soldiers, and a Coast Guard training base. Ellis Island still managed to process tens of thousands of immigrants a year during this time, but many fewer than the hundreds of thousands a year who arrived before the war. After the war, immigration rapidly returned to earlier levels. Noted entertainers who performed for detained aliens and for U.S. and allied servicemen at the island included Rudy Vallee, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, and Lionel Hampton and his orchestra.
The Internal Security Act of 1950 barred members of communist or fascist organizations from immigrating to the United States. Ellis Island saw detention peak at 1,500, but by 1952, after changes to immigration law and policies, only 30 detainees remained.
One of the last detainees was the Aceh separatist Hasan di Tiro who, while a student in New York in 1953, declared himself the âforeign ministerâ of the rebellious Darul Islam movement. Due to this action, he was immediately stripped of his Indonesian citizenship, causing him to be imprisoned for a few months on Ellis Island as âan illegal alien.â
The station's commissioners were:
- 1890â"1893 Colonel John B. Weber (Republican)
- 1893â"1897 Dr. Joseph H. Senner (Democrat)
- 1897â"1902 Thomas Fitchie (Republican)
- 1902â"1905 William Williams (Republican)
- 1905â"1909 Robert Watchorn (Republican)
- 1909â"1913 William Williams (Republican), 2nd term
- 1914â"1919 Dr. Frederic C. Howe (Democrat)
- 1920â"1921 Frederick A. Wallis (Democrat)
- 1921â"1923 Robert E. Tod (Republican)
- 1923â"1926 Henry C. Curran (Republican)
- 1926â"1931 Benjamin M. Day (Republican)
- 1931â"1934 Edward Corsi (Republican)
- 1934â"1940 Rudolph Reimer (Democrat)
- 1940â"1942 Byron H. Uhl (actual title: district director)
- 1942â"1949 W. Frank Watkins (district director)
- 1949â"1954 Edward J. Shaughnessy (district director)
Other notable officials at Ellis Island included Edward F. McSweeney (assistant commissioner), Joseph E. Murray (assistant commissioner), Dr. George W. Stoner (chief surgeon), Augustus Frederick Sherman (chief clerk), Dr. Victor Safford (surgeon), Dr. Victor Heiser (surgeon), Thomas W. Salmon|Dr. Thomas W. Salmon (surgeon), Howard Knox|Dr. Howard Knox (surgeon), Antonio Frabasilis (interpreter), Peter Mikolainis (interpreter), Maud Mosher (matron), Fiorello H. La Guardia (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 Catholic), Rev. Gaspare Moretto (Italian Catholic), Alma E. Mathews (Methodist), Rev. Georg Doring (German Lutheran), Rev. Joseph L'Etauche (Polish Catholic), Rev. Reuben Breed (Episcopal), Michael Lodsin (Baptist), Brigadier Thomas Johnson (Salvation Army), Ludmila K. Foxlee (YWCA), Athena Marmaroff (Woman's Christian Temperance Union), Alexander Harkavy (HIAS), and Cecilia Greenstone and Cecilia Razovsky (National Council of Jewish Women).
A 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 supervision and were more interested in preventing inadmissible aliens from entering the country (for which they were held accountable) than in assisting them in trivial personal matters such as altering their names. The inspectors used the passenger lists given to 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, and the Austro-American Line. The Americanization of many immigrant families' surnames was for the most part adopted by the family after the immigration process, or by the second or third generation of the family after some assimilation into American culture. However, many last names were altered slightly due to the disparity between English and other languages in the pronunciation of certain letters of the alphabet.
To support the activities of the United States Bureau of Immigration, the United States Public Health Service operated an extensive medical service at the immigrant station, called U.S. Marine Hospital Number 43, more widely known as the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. It was the largest marine hospital in the nation. The medical division, which was active both in the hospital and the Great Hall, was staffed by uniformed military surgeons. They are best known for the role they played during the line inspection, in which they employed unusual techniques such as the use of the buttonhook to examine aliens for signs of eye diseases (particularly, trachoma) and the use of a chalk mark code. Symbols were chalked on the clothing of potentially sick immigrants following the six-second medical examination. The doctors would look at the immigrants as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area to the Great Hall. Immigrantsâ behavior would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase. Some immigrants entered the country only by surreptitiously wiping the chalk marks off, or by turning their clothes inside out.
The symbols used were:
The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from Cork, Ireland, who arrived on the ship Nevada 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 gold piece. It was the largest sum of money she had ever owned. The last person to pass through Ellis Island was a Norwegian merchant seaman by the name of Arne Peterssen in 1954.
The wooden structure built in 1892 to house the immigration station burned down after five years. The station's new Main Building, which now houses the Immigration Museum, was opened in 1900. Architects Edward Lippincott Tilton and William Alciphron Boring received a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition for the building's design and constructed the building at a cost of $1.5 million. The architecture competition was the second under the Tarsney Act, which had permitted private architects rather than government architects in the Office of the Supervising Architect to design federal buildings.
After the immigration station closed in November 1954, the buildings fell into disrepair and were all but abandoned. Attempts at redeveloping the site were unsuccessful until its landmark status was established. On October 15, 1965, Ellis Island was proclaimed a part of Statue of Liberty National Monument. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
Boston-based architecture firm Finegold Alexander + Associates Inc, together with the New York architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle, 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. This money was raised by a campaign organized by the political fundraiser Wyatt A. Stewart. The building reopened on September 10, 1990. Exhibits include Hearing Room, Peak Immigration Years, the Peopling of America, Restoring a Landmark, Silent Voices, Treasures from Home, and Ellis Island Chronicles. There are also three theaters used for film and live performances.
As part of the National Park Service's Centennial Initiative, the south side of the island was to be the target of a project to restore the 28 buildings that have not yet been rehabilitated.
The Wall of Honor outside of the main building contains a partial list of immigrants processed on the island. Inclusion on the list is made possible by a donation to support the facility. In 2008 the museumâs library was officially named the Bob Hope Memorial Library in honor of one the stationâs most famous immigrants.
The Ellis Island Medal of Honor is awarded annually at ceremonies on the island.
Many of the facilities at Ellis Island were abandoned and remain unrenovated. The entire south side, called by some the "sad side" of the island, is off-limits to the general public. The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital operated here from early 1902 to 1930. The foundation Save Ellis Island is spearheading preservation efforts. The New Ferry Building, built in the Art Deco style to replace an earlier one, was renovated in 2008, but remains only partially accessible to the general public.
Emergency services on Ellis Island are provided by the following emergency divisions of the National Park Service:
- Police services and security are provided for the island by the United States Park Police.
- ' Fire Suppression is provided by the National Park Services Division of Safety and Emergency Managements Statue Of Liberty Fire Brigade which consists of a crew of federal NPS firefighters who are trained and certified as Structural Firefighter I, Structural Firefighter II and/or Wildland Firefighters. The Statue of Liberty Fire Brigade also provides fire suppression response to nearby Liberty Island. Since the nearest other National Park Service Fire Brigade is located in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the Statue Of Liberty Fire Brigade maintains a mutual aid agreement with the Jersey City Fire Department for mutual aid assistance on Ellis Island should it be required.
- Emergency Medical Services are provided by National Park Services Division of Safety and Emergency management which consists of a team of full-time NPS Emergency Medical Technicians and Certified First Responder. Patient transports are coordinated with Jersey City Medical Center Ambulances but emergency response and patient care falls upon the National Park Service Emergency Medical Technicians
Ellis island has been a source of inspiration or subject in popular culture.
Early films, including those from the silent era, which feature the station include Traffic in Souls (1913), The Yellow Passport (1916), My Boy (1921), Frank Capra's The Strong Man (1926), We Americans (1928), The Mating Call (1928), Ellis Island (1936), Paddy O'Day (1936), Gateway (1938), Exile Express (1939), I, Jane Doe (1948), and Gambling House (1951). In The Godfather Part II, Don Corleone immigrates via Ellis Island as a boy. The opening scene of The Brother From Another Planet is set there. The island is visited by the characters in the 2005 romantic comedy, Hitch, and is the setting for the climactic battle in X-Men.
Some films have focused on the immigrant experience, such as the 1984 TV miniseries Ellis Island. The IMAX 3D movie Across the Sea of Time incorporates both modern footage and historical photographs of Ellis Island. The 2006 Italian movie The Golden Door, directed by Emanuele Crialese, takes place largely on Ellis Island. Forgotten Ellis Island, a film and book, focuses on the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. The Immigrant is a 2013 American drama film directed by James Gray, starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner.
Photographer Stephen Wilkes's series Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom (2006) captured the abandoned south side of Ellis Island.
Ellis Island as a port of entry is described in detail in Mottel the Cantor's Son by Sholom Aleichem.
Ellis Island: The Dream of America is a work for actors and orchestra with projected images by Peter Boyer, composed in 2001-02. The song "The New Ground - Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears", on the 2010 album Songs from the Heart by the group Celtic Woman, is about Annie Moore and Ellis Island.
The USPS issued a 32Â¢ stamp on February 3, 1998 as part of the Celebrate the Century stamp sheet series.