06 February 2012

Give Us Your Poor

There are certain places in New York that are suppose to only interest tourists (the Empire State Building, Times Square, Rockefeller Center). But I love history so I tend to ignore the tourist label if a place is historically significant. Which is why I found myself on a ferry last month, headed out to Ellis Island. 

Ellis Island. The name conjures up old black and white images of women with scarves on their heads and little children clinging to their skirts while men wearing suits and handlebar moustaches stand nearby. In other words, something right up my alley.

The only way to get to Ellis Island is to take a ferry, which makes two stops: the first at Liberty Island where most people disembark to see the Statue of Liberty and the second at Ellis Island. I didn’t get off at Liberty Island, happy to see Lady Liberty from the top deck of the ferry (she’s actually much smaller in person save for her feet, which are huge). My destination was the second island, the place nicknamed the Island of Tears.

Between 1892 and 1954 more than 12 million immigrants passed through the doors of the immigration station on Ellis Island; at its peak in 1907, more than 11,000 people were processed there daily. Today, 40 percent of Americans have an ancestor who came through Ellis Island, making it perhaps one of the most important places in America.

During this time, ships would arrive at Hudson or East River Pier where first and second-class passengers were allowed to disembark after passing through customs (the general consensus was if you could afford the fare, you probably wouldn't ask for charity from the state). Third class or steerage passengers were sent via ferry to Ellis Island to be processed, which included undergoing a physical and intelligence exam. The majority of people were allowed through within a day; those who were held on the island were usually kept behind for medical reasons, political affiliations, or lack of funds to get to their destination.

One of the many details on the main building.

Today the main building on Ellis Island is a museum. Its imposing red brick and white limestone Beaux Arts style is both stern and lovely at the same time. Inside, visitors can stand in the Great Hall and imagine its vast space packed with people waiting to pass through registration or wander around the three floors and see the rooms where the recently arrived ate, slept, were examined, tested, and in some cases, detained.

The Great Hall today.

Throughout the museum are numerous displays that highlight the history of immigration in America from the various ethnic groups that poured into New York to the prejudice and other challenges they encountered once here to their great impact on American society and culture. Along with countless photographs, maps, objects, and personal belongings (so interesting to see what people felt compelled to bring with them) are audio recordings, many of which are oral histories from people who were processed at Ellis Island. On the walls are printed numerous stories, including my favourite from an Italian immigrant who said "I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets were not paved with gold. Second, they weren't paved at all. Third, I was expected to pave them."

I started my visit with a talk by a park ranger and a viewing of a film Island of Hope, Island of Tears, which gives a good introduction to the place. There was so much to see that I found myself having to hustle to catch the last ferry, the hours having flown by while I immersed myself in history.

Back outside, I turned to look at the red bricks rising against the blue sky with the grand streets and buildings of New York waiting across the water and felt the power of the place—a great symbol of hope.

If you’d like to visit Ellis Island, I highly recommend buying tickets in advance. There are different options to purchase, all of which can be found here.

Photos by Michele.

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